Connecting with the community through clay

Fourteen refugee teens from Catholic Charities’ Refugee Resettlement Program participate in a twice weekly summer initiative sponsored by Say it With Clay in Collingswood as part of a prelude to Pope Francis’ and Caritas International’s call to “Share the Journey,” a Global Migration Campaign starting this September and lasting until 2019.
Photo by Mary McCusker

Samrawrit’s hands meticulously folded around a block of clay as she carefully molded the nebulous wet blob into a specific design. The oddly shaped contours drew interest from another teen from Burma.

“What is that?” he asked curiously.

“It’s my home country of Ethiopia,” she explained, as she poured red, yellow and green onto a paint palette. “These are the colors of the flag.”

Engraved in her sculpture was one word: “PEACE.”

These young artisans were two of 14 teen refugees from the Catholic Charities’ Refugee Resettlement program participating in a twice weekly summer initiative sponsored by Say It With Clay in Collingswood.

Using the therapeutic power of clay, the nonprofit organization aims to help people coping with diverse needs, including those suffering from childhood trauma.

“The creativity and relaxation that results from working hands-on with clay generates a sense of pride, success and motivation — all valuable stimulants for healing,” explained Abbie Kasoff, the founder, CEO, and director at Say It with Clay. “It’s also a great alternative channel for communication,” she added.

And communicate they did. Tables and tents filled the outdoor area, decorated with clay sculptures drying on shelves on the brick walls, as the teens mixed and mingled, asking each other about their creations, which led to conversations about their experiences.

The 14 refugee teens have come to the South Jersey area from all over the world: Burma (Myanmar), Ethiopia, Syria, Afghanistan, among others. Many have experienced war, persecution and destruction in their countries of origin at levels that would be traumatizing even for adults, let alone for children.

Judging from the lively conversations among the teens, interacting not only with each other but also with the Catholic Charities staff and interns, and Say It With Clay personnel, the creative experience was achieving its purpose.

“Done!” shouted Abdul, a 15-year-old refugee from Syria who woke up at 5 a.m. because of how excited he was for the day. He proudly revealed his finished sculpture to Morgan Penza, a staff member at Say It With Clay.

When she asked what is was, he exclaimed “Minecraft!”generating faces of excitement from refugees and interns alike, who all instantly recognized this video computer game — one that seemingly knows no boundaries among young people from across the world, as an explosion of chatter about the clay design erupted at the table.

At the next table over, two Burmese friends worked on a sculpture of a basketball. One of them explained, “It’s my favorite sport. Ever since I moved to the United States, I’ve been playing it so much. I even play at my school.”

Pointing to his friend and smiling, “He’s much better at it than me, but he’s helping me.”

Priscilla Adams, Catholic Charities’ academic success coordinator for the Refugee Resettlement Program, noted, “The students love this opportunity to create art in a supportive community with professional teachers and artists. They see their own strengths and the strengths of others as they work together to create beautiful works of art. We hope the community will come see their art installation and welcome the refugees in our neighborhoods.”

Artistry projects such as this, which promote interaction between migrants and the community, are a prelude to Pope Francis’ and Caritas International’s call to “Share the Journey” — a Global Migration Campaign starting this September and lasting until 2019.

Over the course of the next two years, Catholic Charities will be joining the campaign and embracing Pope Francis’ call to join the “culture of encounter.” The ultimate goal is to increase the spaces and opportunities for migrants and local communities to meet, talk and take action in the hopes that everyone with a migration experience will have opportunities to share the story of their journey with people who live in communities where the migrants ultimately come to settle.

“It is through these personal, one-on-one exchanges that immigrants and those who live in their newly adopted communities come to see and value the commonalities that we all share as members of the same human family,” notes Kevin Hickey, executive director of Catholic Charities Diocese of Camden. “Building personal relationships can change the world.”

Kasoff agreed and explained the mutual benefits of the teen refugee initiative. “This project enhances their lives, as well as ours, and we are honored to have them here and involved in our culture. We educate each other. We learn about what they’ve been through. They learn about art.”

Penza, who has been working for Say It With Clay for two years, echoed Kasoff’s statement about the mutual learning created through personal encounter. “Honestly, I think they’ve taught me a lot more than I’ve taught them,” she laughed, as she helped one of the teens fix his now flattened sculpture that he accidentally dropped on the concrete.

For these 14 refugee teens, sharing their journey, interacting with the community, and embracing their new life in the United States has begun.