Refugees’ Lives Refracted Through Arts Project Lens

Times Staff Writer

A program at two local schools is encouraging young refugees from strife-torn nations to use photography, oral narrative and journal-keeping to ease the transition to their new lives in the United States.

Students from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Colombia and elsewhere are part of an effort at Crawford High in San Diego and Cajon Valley Middle School in El Cajon sponsored by the AjA Project, an international group that also runs youth programs in Colombia and refugee camps in Thailand.

“We want them to tell their own stories through pictures and words,” said Shinpei Takeda, president and co-founder of the AjA Project.

Armed with inexpensive “point and shoot” cameras, the students are told to portray their everyday lives and reflect on their homelands and hopes for the future.


“I can still smell the dust of the people. I remember people asking each other, ‘Who got killed today?’ I can still hear young girls crying, ‘Help us,’ ” wrote Ahmed Diriye, 17, who emigrated from Ethiopia.

A common theme in the students’ work is the mix of excitement and homesickness that confronts many immigrants.

“It was very exciting to watch TV for the first time in America,” wrote Yonis Ismail Omar, 15, from Somalia. “At first all I thought about was back home, and TV would help me to forget.”

After a semester’s toil, students unveiled their work -- pictures, essays, and taped commentary -- as part of a youth conference last week at the University of San Diego’s Joan Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice. (The work can also be seen on the group’s Web site:


At a panel discussion titled, “Youth Making Sense of Lives Touched by Fear and Terror,” the students shared their perceptions of the U.S. and their homelands with students from San Diego and Tijuana.

“I don’t like American politics, because they always think they’re right and never see another way to see a problem,” said Andres Pavgo, 16, from Colombia. Nassra Abdi, 16, said Americans were more accepting than Europeans she met after her family fled Somalia: “In America, you don’t see a lot of judgment. They just want to know about” me.

And in what proved an eye opener to the native-born students at the conference, Abdi and other students talked of hunger and fear as common experiences in their homelands.

“I would love to go back, if my country had as much food as here,” Abdi said.

Said Milano Fatho, 13, from Iraq: “I would love to go back to my country if I had money and food and I could be safe there.”

Offered in partnership with the International Rescue Committee, the AjA Project (the initials stand for Spanish words that can be translated as “serving self-sufficiency”) is underwritten by several groups, including Sempra Energy, corporate parent of San Diego Gas & Electric.

“By validating their feelings, they can be a real protagonist, not just someone who’s been victimized,” said project official and documentary photographer Alex Fattal. “I definitely think there’s a therapeutic value.”