When it comes to art shows and exhibitions, few feel as timely and relevant as REFUGE. Created by photographer Claire Schlissel, the series of images tells the story of ten refugee children from Ethiopia, Somalia, and Syria resettled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
The city of Lancaster has been the subject of considerable press attention since Donald Trump took office, and for interesting reason: this is a town that resettles 20 times more refugees per capita than any other city in the United States. And while a majority of the city itself voted for Hillary Clinton this past November, Lancaster County as a whole was overwhelmingly in support of Donald Trump – and in turn, at least theoretically, his policies, which include a ban of immigrants and refugees from several predominantly Muslim countries (which we can all acknowledge is simply a “Muslim ban”). This tension drew major national and international attention to Lancaster, and outlets including the BBC, the New York Times, and the Washington Post wrote stories in light of the Trump’s election.
For Schissel, the genesis of the project runs way deeper and longer than anything related to POTUS.
“The seed for REFUGE had been planted in my head in October of 2015, after I deejayed a show in Chicago with my partner from the Jane Doze; we could feel that project coming to an end,” Schlissel says when we connect over the phone. “A friend suggested we do a Humans of New York type of thing; I wanted to do something a little more original, but the idea was planted in my head.”
After nine years as a DJ and musician in New York, Schlissel moved back to Lancaster in late September 2016, and spent a few weeks, “not really doing much of anything.” It took about six weeks for things to click for Schlissel, and the idea began to crystallize – mainly at the prompting of her mother.
“She walked into my room one morning and said, “What if you drew the refugees in Lancaster?”” A self-taught illustrator and visual artist, Schlissel had dabbled in drawing and painting her whole life even while making a living as a musician, but she had always hesitated turning this passion into a professional endeavor.
“I thought about it, and it felt perfect, so we decided to go down to the Church World Services offices together. They’re one of a couple of national organizations that helps resettle refugees, and they have a branch here in Lancaster. My mom has always been involved in the refugee community – we actually hosted a Bosnian family in the 1990s, and then a Turkish family in the 2000s.”
Once connected with the right people who could facilitate introductions to refugee families, Schlissel realized that photography and sketch were the ideal mediums for this project and art show – and that it needed to happen now.
“It felt like the universe kept pointing me in the direction of this exhibit. It’s a particularly awful time in history to be a refugee, honestly. The election happened, and then the travel ban happened, and all of a sudden, all eyes were on Lancaster.”
Armed with an iPhone, charcoal, plenty of empathy, and a deep desire to connect, Schlissel introduced herself to the families and the children who became the subjects of the exhibit, overcoming substantial language barriers on many occasions.
“The kids – they have been through so much, and they are just so overwhelmingly happy. I think they’re just relieved to be in a place where they don’t have to be scared. Obviously some of them were reserved or shy when meeting me for the first time – what child wouldn’t be? But most of them were so warm, and giggly, and excitable. And even though we couldn’t speak at length, I still felt like we connected.”
The exhibit kicks off Thursday, April 27 on the rooftop of 7th Flats in Washington, D.C., before Schlissel takes it back to Lancaster, and then onto a couple of other major cities – San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. And Salvo is hopeful that it will help raise awareness and empathy for the tribulations facing so many families seeking asylum – and even those who obtain refugee status.
“There are two aims. One is to raise money: a portion of the proceeds from sales of the pictures are going to go back to the families that participated. The families are given a stipend when they come over through Church World Services – under $1,000 per person, for three months, provided by the government. Keep in mind that their flight to get over here is a loan, which they’re expected to pay back, and they live in normal apartments, without any kind of government subsidy. They’re supporting families of seven or eight people, in a new country, where they usually don’t speak the language.”
“The bigger goal is to start a conversation and tear down the walls that the current administration is trying to build up. This area has a really long history of helping refugees, and that cause is so tied into so many churches here. The Amish were some of the first settlers in Lancaster, and they were escaping religious persecution.”
Schlissel takes an extended pause.
“How do you reconcile this population of people who voted for Donald Trump – and for all intents and purposes would support a Muslim ban – with this area’s long history and sizable population who welcome refugees and want to do anything they can to help them?”
“The most important thing that’s going to change minds and attitudes is the experience you’re going to have in person. The best thing people can do is go out and volunteer and meet these people – teach them English, or help them move in. They work so, so hard, and they’ve gone through so much to get here.”
REFUGE debuts Thursday, April 27 on the rooftop of 7th Flats in Washington, D.C., in partnership with Dress Abstract. You can help out refugees by purchasing some of the collection here, and you can learn more about Church World Services here.