by Mark McGowan
For many Americans, a mention of Darfur conjures only thoughts of George Clooney, Brad Pitt and other film and music celebrities who frequently speak out on the Sudanese region’s behalf.
Yet the genocidal reality there is a grim one.
According to the Save Darfur Coalition, “up to 2.5 million Darfuris have fled their homes and continue to live in campus throughout Darfur or in refugee camps in neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic.”
The coalition’s Web site cites a United Nations statistic that sets the death toll at “roughly 300,000” and attributes a “number at no less than 400,000” to a former U.N. undersecretary general.
“Humanitarian assistance in Darfur continues to be at risk of collapse, in part because of sustained harassment by the Sudanese government, and in part because of the government’s militia allies and common criminals,” according to the Web site. “In September 2006, the United Nations estimated that such a collapse would cause up to 100,000 civilian deaths every month.”
Children in DeKalb and Naperville are doing their part to raise public awareness of the war and to put smiles on the faces of some Darfuri children.
NIU art education professor Mira Reisberg and Karen Popovich, the art teacher at Naperville’s Thayer J. Hill Middle School since 2001, combined forces this summer and fall to create a tent for “Tents of Hope.”
The national community art project will stage an exhibition next month in Washington, D.C., to boost U.S. consciousness and attempt to prompt assistance for refugees struggling to survive. The NIU-Thayer Hill tent will join the others from Friday, Nov. 7, to Sunday, Nov. 9, before it is sent to be a school in Darfur.
First, though, the tent painters will unveil their 8-foot-by-10-foot masterpiece at a 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16, event at Thayer Hill, 1836 Brookdale Road in Naperville. Members of the school board, the mayor and leaders of a new Sudanese community center in Naperville all have been invited to attend.
“Elly is a friend of mine who has a contract to write a book about the project,” Reisberg said. “She came to the Chicago area to facilitate a tent-painting project in Geneva with some of the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan.’ The Midwest was an area where a lot of the boys were resettled. She invited me to come help out, so I did – and it was just incredible.”
Reisberg watched the Lost Boys paint pictures of despair – of friends eaten by crocodiles, of bombs falling on villages – as well as images of hope. “I really wanted to make a tent,” she said.
She approached Popovich, an NIU doctoral student. She contacted Lesly Wicks, director of DeKalb’s Hope Haven homeless shelter. She brought the project into her classroom for two art classes, an introductory course for education majors and a 300-level course for art education majors.
Jim and Helen Merritt – not only are they the “local treasures” behind Merritt Prairie, but Helen is an artist who taught in the NIU School of Art before her retirement – provided financial support. So did Thayer Hill, NIU’s art education program and Hope Haven. The Universal Unitarian Fellowship of DeKalb and its minister, the Rev. Linda Slabon, also provided space and support by bringing treats and helping the Hope Haven children.
At Hope Haven, the children watched a DVD on the Lost Boys of Sudan and then were asked to paint squares for the tent.
“I initially wanted the kids to paint about their experiences with homelessness and send good wishes to the kids in Darfur, but they were really not into it, and I didn’t want to push it. We switched it to where they painted about their own hopes for the future, and they made really beautiful things,” Reisberg said.
“They got to see their artwork was valued, and they got to hang out with a group of university students,” she added. “All of us really encouraged them to think about attending university one day. In the Lost Boys of Sudan DVD, a lot of the boys talked about how the reason they wanted to come to America was so they could get an education, and they talked about the obstacles they overcame to get an education.”
Reisberg’s outreach was appreciated and her message was clear, Wicks said.
“Homeless children rarely see a reflection of themselves or their struggles out in the world. Homeless children have stories that are so different than those of the kids they go to school with. They have stories not seen in the media or on TV,” Wicks said.
“Our kids were really able to make the connection between their personal stories and the struggles of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and they were able to talk about their own narrative of losing everything – losing a home, losing hope,” she added. “The story of the Lost Boys gave them some hope to focus on education – that if you work hard and have hope and believe in yourself, you can overcome all kinds of obstacles and crises.”
After the painting work – the children “enjoyed being creative and having that outlet,” Wicks said – the young Hope Haven residents found affirmation.
“They feel valuable. They feel important,” she said. “They thought it was a real honor to be part of something that was so big and global, yet they could relate to. They felt significant.”
“Working with the kids at Hope Haven was my favorite part. They were incredible and hopefully will go really far in their lives,” said Vanessa Fosses, one of two art education majors who will accompany the tent to the nation’s capitol in November. “Their thoughts for the future were so bright and inspiring. Some really profound things came out of their mouths.”
At Thayer Hill, NIU art education students have been assisting the middle school students with painting the tent.
Some are earning additional clinical hours. Others are volunteering time.
“Karen and I worked with the Thayer Hill and NIU students to come up with the basic framework and what imagery we wanted to include: the natural world of Darfur, images of hope, stories of homelessness and refugees in Darfur,” Reisberg said. “Karen came up with this great tree concept with a tree on either of the main sides and words embedded in the branches. One is about the future of hope and peace. The other side has words related to loss, war, suffering and pain.”
“We wanted our tent to tell a story about how we really hope that this brings awareness and that these people of Darfur can get back to their communities and to rebuilding their communities,” Popovich said. “On one side, they’re walking away from the refugee camp. On the other parallel side, they’re walking on the same road toward their rebuilt communities. Peace, hope, change, trust, rebuild and support are the words in the branches.”
Thayer Hill students participated in an art club held before and after school. Students who aren’t enrolled in art during this first fall quarter also have pitched in with brushes.
Popovich said her middle school pupils learned how to create art that has a meaning and a message. They also honed painting skills such as adding texture, aerial perspective, silhouettes and how to mix colors.
“The tent looks great,” Popovich said. “It’s very colorful, with textile patterns along the bottom and a beautiful sunset all around. It’s a real strong image.”
Those include painting: Students in the two art education courses painted 1-inch square mandalas (representing balance and the natural world) that were stitched together to form a rug for the interior of the tent.
Now they have first-hand knowledge of organizing service-based projects and the importance of service-based learning, Reisberg said. They worked with children “in a concerted way,” she said. “They got to watch Karen Popovich and NIU student teacher Mike Olson in action.”
“My students learned about local and global connections. They learned about service-based learning, doing work that benefits others and connects with the community,” Reisberg said. “They’re learning about the natural world, depth and radial symmetry, how to paint, how to create value, how to make things look sensational, color theory and that art can make a difference.”
“I learned that this really is what I would like to with art,” said Fosses, a second-year student from Westmont, Ill. “Integrating the community is an integral part of art education.”
For Reisberg, who in the past focused more on art content than artistic ability with her general education students, her decision to concentrate equally on skills “is really paying off. They quality of the art is getting much more impressive and, more important, the students are really impressing themselves.”
For more information on Tents of Hope, visit www.tentsofhope.org.