When grade 6 students from Laurentian Hills Christian School (LHCS) accepted the invitation to pick up a paintbrush last month, it wasn’t for a typical art project—they were helping Kitchener’s Welcome Home Refugee Community mark a beautiful milestone. The organization, only a nine minute drive from LHCS, has been assisting refugees for ten years this June—providing newcomers to Canada with short-term housing, trauma counseling, and spiritual support. Thanks to a mural designed by local artist Pamela Rojas, one side of the Welcome Home building now serves as a visual reminder of that good work. The mural’s creation has been a communal affair, with people of all ages taking time to fill in its many coloured sections, including LHCS students from Ingrid Fehdereau’s art class.
The seven by twenty foot painting, entitled “Stories of New Beginnings”, celebrates a decade of sharing life with refugees. It shows residents who have come to the home, taking part in activities like bike riding, reading and canoeing. Also pictured in the mural are wire fences, numbered tents, and army tanks—reminders of life in a refugee camp.
“Using the mural itself, the artist was able to explain a refugee’s experiences to the students,” says Fehdereau, grade 6 teacher at LHCS. “The artist chose to symbolize the baggage that someone brings when they come from another country, whether that’s leaving the graves of loved ones behind, or their food, or their language.”
Several of the images depicted in the mural appear to be inside glass bottles, a fitting symbol because of the way they often drift across water—many refugees know what it’s like to “drift” from their old life and journey overseas, Fehdereau points out.
Inside the bottles there are images of hope too, like a lighthouse, the Kitchener sky line, and the Welcome Home building.
In contributing to the wall’s engaging visual narrative, Fehdereau believes that her students were also “serving God by serving people in their community”.
Sharon Schmidt, Director at Welcome Home, notes that the mural painting was also “a beginning” and “a seed” for teachers.
“I’m always excited to see teachers grasping what the organization is all about. They’re the ones that are going to be with these students every day,” she reflects.
According to Schmidt, there are good reasons for Christian educators to help students better understand the refugee experience. Even if students have trouble imagining what it’s like to flee a war torn country, or leave loved ones behind, they can still be encouraged to think deeply about what it means to welcome newcomers.
“Running through the entire bible is that we are to welcome the stranger,” she says, “and that when we do it’s like we’re welcoming Jesus”.
Schmidt’s attitude is also informed by the understanding she has of her own Canadian identity. “Most of us, if we look back, all immigrated at some point,” she notes. “My grandparents came as refugees. Many of us came as refugees. And so we remember where we come from, how lucky we are to be here. Why do we welcome the stranger? Because we remember that we were all strangers at some point.”
By connecting with an organization like Welcome Home, whether it be through mural painting or in other capacities, students have the chance to see what’s happening in their own neighbourhood, adds Schmidt. With that opportunity comes more chances to be a friend and to be someone who can make a difference in the lives of others, she thinks.
Such a perspective dovetails well with LHCS’s philosophy around community engagement. “Our vision statement says that students need to engage in opportunities to love God by serving others, impacting both themselves and our local community to recognize the lasting value of sharing their time, treasures and talents,” says Fehdereau.
“As they get to grade six, seven and eight we’re looking for opportunities for them to really be involved in a hands-on way in the community and to start thinking internationally as well … This is part of that.”