Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
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This article was published 1/7/2010 (3694 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Refugee women in traditional dress are, typically, wallflowers at government functions and cultural events.
But one group of newcomers clothed in colourful Eritrean couture are no shrinking violets laying low while officials and dignitaries make speeches.
They're the paparazzi, armed with cameras, confidence and politely getting in people's faces.
"They've come so far from Day One to today in terms of their confidence, self-esteem and ability to integrate," said Lambros Kyriakakos, spokesman for the Eritrean Community in Winnipeg Inc. It applied to the Winnipeg Arts Council's WITH ART program to have an artist work with 12 new immigrant single moms.
They wanted the process to empower the women who've recently come to Winnipeg, often from disturbing and unsettling refugee experiences, he said.
The community knows the women are strong and capable, said Kyriakakos. "They're small heroes to be in a refugee camp -- in a jail -- and to mentally survive. Here, they're starting from zero."
They needed to find a way to tap into their strength and resilience.
Art was the method. Photography was the medium. "When you put a camera in someone's hand, it gives them a way to speak for themselves," said Sarah Crawley, the artist and instructor they chose. "They can photograph whatever they want."
The Eritrean community chose the 12 participants based on need.
One woman has a disabled child; another has a disability herself.
They're all single moms from different parts of the city, at different stages of their settlement, from different faiths and backgrounds, in school and/or working -- sometimes two or three jobs.
The Eritrean community helps with rides, bus tickets and a translator. Classes don't always start promptly to allow time for women running late.
"Some of them come straight from work," said Crawley.
Attendance is close to 100 per cent. There's no money in it for the women, no promises of a better job, but they come because they enjoy it, said Crawley. At the official opening of the Immigrant Centre in May, the women were assigned to take photos at the event.
Before they began snapping pics, though, they were awestruck by a black-and-white photo hanging in the board room of immigrants who'd just arrived in Winnipeg in 1927.
"They were all white people," said Kyriakakos.
The photography students started out using inexpensive, plastic Holga cameras.
The army-green film cameras had to be sealed with black electrical tape to prevent light from seeping in through the cracks.
"We started out shooting in small groups walking up and down Ellice (Avenue)," Crawley said. Months later, at the Eritrean community's Christmas party, traditional roles looked a little different with the women photographing the festivities.
"Usually the ladies are dressed in their best and stay in a corner... These ladies have overcome that barrier," said Kyriakakos.
"They have as much right to take up that space as anyone," said Crawley.
When Eritrean Independence Day festivities rolled around May 24, one of the women was the MC at the huge community event and her classmates -- now equipped with digital cameras -- took photos at the packed Masonic Temple.
Kyriakakos, a registered nurse who volunteers in the community and has adopted six kids, said it has also been a kind of art therapy for the women.
Their Saturday evening classes are held at PrairieView School of Photography, which has donated the space.
The Eritrean paparazzi scanned their black-and-white contact sheets looking for just the right shot to enlarge and process into a print in the darkroom.
At a special class in May, the women each brought one of their children to class for a demonstration of the technical process.
The Winnipeg Arts Council provided the initial grant of $15,000.
The Winnipeg Foundation provided $20,000 for the second phase. Now they're seeking another source of funding to help the program carry on with a new group of women and four of the graduating students to mentor them.
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.
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