'It's therapy': Lethbridge woman uses art to help refugees tell their stories

A project in Lethbridge is helping refugees use the universal language of art to tell their stories of fleeing war-torn countries for Canada.

Participants use mediums like painting, sculpting and poetry to share their experiences

Amrita Deshpande shows off the artwork of one participant, depicting Waterton Lakes National Park. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

A project in Lethbridge is helping refugees use the universal language of art to tell their stories of fleeing war-torn countries for Canada.

When refugees from Syria, Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries began resettling in Lethbridge two years ago, artist Amrita Deshpande knew she wanted to help.

"I wanted to find a way to express myself, but also help them find the best way to express themselves," she said. 

Deshpande, who is the artist in residence at the Community Art Centre, reached out to five refugee families, and offered to teach them what she knows best: art.

"One, it's therapy, and two, it definitely brings out your emotions and also attracts people — people get drawn to art," she said.

Twelve-year-old Anwar Ahmed's family was part of the project. She said the process of creating art made her feel nostalgic for her home country.

"Because I can remember everything in Lebanon and what we did," she said. 

Twelve-year-old Anwar Ahmed said she loved being able to paint her favourite landscapes and seascapes from home. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

Anwar said it also allowed her to pay tribute to her favourite memories from home, like the ocean.     

"Because every day me and my family go down to the ocean and just like walk and watch the ocean," she said.

Deshpande said seeing and hearing the stories of the participants was often overwhelming. 

"One of the refugees drew this picture. His expression was that no one in Syria was safe. Even the trees he's shown bleeding," she said.

"There were bombings, there were planes, there were people dying, there were tankards — and a lot of war situations that he had to flee from there."

Amrita Deshpande shows the art of one of the participants, who depicted a war-torn Syria where 'even the trees he's shown bleeding.' (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

Adnan Ahmed, Anwar's father, said participating in the project with his family helped them during a lonely time that not many others can relate to. 

"It left me with a really good feeling," he said through a translator. "I'd been feeling a lot of stress. A lot of things happened so quickly and I had been feeing depressed. The project really helped me release some of those feelings."

Some of the art made by refugees participating in Deshpande's art workshops. The plaque on the left says 'Every land that grows love is a home,' and the one on the right says 'Thank you Canada.' (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

Deshpande has applied for funding from the Canada Council for the Arts to use the project to create a documentary.

She plans to sell or donate the entire exhibit to the library or a local gallery when it's completed.

About the Author

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary. Lucie most recently headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alberta. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson