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A Traveling Art Project Connects Displaced Kids

A giant, globe-trotting mural is linking displaced children from two different continents, across vastly different cultures, languages and experiences. “Same Difference: The Mural” is a 36-foot canvas with four different panels spearheaded by art educator Sarah Cornette. Four groups of children, from Chapel Hill; Thessaloniki and Samos, Greece; and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, put paintbrush to canvas and depicted stories from their own experiences of travel and trauma.

Cornette was a teacher at Scroggs Elementary School in Chapel Hill when she was awarded a Fulbright Distinguished Teaching Award, which funded her journey to Greece in spring of 2019. Her project asks several questions: Can collaborative art heal trauma and divisiveness? And, is there a process to collaboratively create community and art in a way that could be multicultural?

She focused on Greece because of parallels between the cultural climate there and in the United States when it comes to refugees. She decided to bring the mural to the U.S.-Mexico border this summer to include the voices of refugees on the American continent. Cornette joins guest host Anita Rao to share her experiences in these different communities using art to bridge divides.

Interview Highlights

Cornette on how children contributed to the mural:

The kids decide upon every piece of what's going to happen in the mural, and they also generate the images themselves. And so I had carefully thought about this question: What's important in our community right here, right now? And I use the word important because I wanted to make sure that it was open-ended enough that they could throw out anything that was important, whether it was something really positive, or something that they noticed that was going on that they also wanted to talk about.

The most important thing that those kids wanted to do was be seen. - Sarah Cornette

What she heard from children at the refugee camp in Samos, Greece:

The most important thing that those kids wanted to do was be seen. And actually, I encountered the exact same thing when I walked up into the camp, and I started talking to the adults. They really were desperate to be seen and heard and not treated like a number — which is ironic, because the number that they're given when they get off the boat is this incredibly important thing, because it's the number in line that they are to have their asylum hearing. So as important as those numbers are … they all felt like they'd lost their sense of personhood, and they were being referred to as masses and waves and these faceless people. And so they just really wanted to be seen.

How Chapel Hill students reacted to the mural once she brought it back from Greece:

One thing that kept coming up over and over was how lucky they felt not to have these kinds of situations happening in our country — that it seemed really far away, the idea of people living in tents and not having enough food and waiting to get somewhere and waiting to get in and be granted asylum. All of that seemed really far away. And of course … this has been a really big issue lately with the migrants at our border. And the more I kept hearing about that situation and then hearing about the kids making this assumption that that wasn't happening here, I realized that my mural was not telling a complete story.

On being a person of privilege in these spaces:

I don't speak the many languages that were spoken on Samos Island, and I'm also not a Spanish speaker. But it's amazing how working with images and working with paint just brings people together in joy. And so I just sort of have to make a decision that even though I'm a person of privilege and I'm white, that I'm just going to go ahead and do something. I just need to do something. I needed to do something to bring a project to these kids and uplift them.

Amanda Magnus is the executive producer of Embodied, a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She has also worked on other WUNC shows including Tested and CREEP.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.
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