Dec. 4 2008 12:00 AM

MSU students, refugee children connect through mural

Amelia DeVivo/City Pulse Alexis Ndaismye eagerly raises his hand when asked which part of the mural he painted at the Refugee Development Center at Christ Lutheran Church.
There may have been snow and ice on the ground outside Lansing’s Christ Lutheran Church Wednesday night, but the temperature skyrocketed on the way up to the church’s second floor, where a crowd of more than 40 gathered in the cramped hallway to witness the unveiling of a mural by child refugees and Michigan State University students.

The mural was created by members of a civic engagement course led by visiting professor Guillermo Delgado’s, which was designed to foster community through art. Over the course of the semester, Delgado and four students from MSU’s Residential College of Arts and Humanities worked with dozens of children from all over the globe through the Refugee Development Center at the church.

“We asked them, ‘what does community mean to you? What would you want it to look like?’” Delgado said. “They responded by painting things that they see in their daily lives, like animals, toys, trees, etc., with vibrant shapes and colors. A lot of these kids had very little exposure to any formal kind of artistic training, and they just responded with this wonderful enthusiasm.”

The refugees that visited the center had been uprooted from places as far away as Tanzania, Somalia, Burundi and Burma due to government corruption and violence that left many of them without food, shelter and safety.

Virginia Borcherdt, one of the students working with the children, said the project had its challenges, but they were far outnumbered by the rewards.

“There was definitely a language barrier that made things difficult. A lot of the kids didn’t speak English, but we were able to get by with gestures and smiles. Humor was definitely important as well,” she said, cracking a smile as she watched a child pace in anticipation of the public’s arrival. “Seeing them having fun with artwork was probably the most gratifying part.”

As the children proudly lined up and revealed their masterpiece, spectators’ eyes misted over and the sound of applause reverberated through the small hallway. “I knew I was going to do this,” said Delgado, his voice breaking with emotion as he attempted to talk about the project.

Throughout the evening, the children vied for the MSU students’ attention and hugs and good-byes were dispersed to all those who had participated, supporting evidence that Delgado had succeeded with his objective of “fostering community through art.”

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