It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to imagine what it feels like to be a refugee in a strange land.
That is why everyone should go see (and absorb) a stunning exhibit entitled “Free at Last: A Journey of Hope,” which opens Sept. 4 at the River’s Edge Convention Center in downtown St. Cloud. The free show will run through Oct. 31.
The exhibit contains about 60 art works and 14 biographical narratives created and written mainly by immigrant refugees from Somalia, that strife-torn tragic country on the eastern edge of the Horn of Africa.
“Free at Last” is a real eye-opener because it invites us into the hearts and minds of these refugees whose lives have been marked by constant turbulence, dangers, insecurities, fears and – last but not least – infinite hopes. Most of these Somalis have not only been uprooted from their homes because of a brutal civil war but many spent years in refugee camps inside neighboring Ethiopia before finding refuge in other countries. Many witnessed their own loved ones killed in violent confrontations and acts of sheer terror. Most have been separated from parents, siblings and other close-knit relatives whom they may never see again. After all of those unimaginable physical and emotional traumas, these people made the long journey to a country utterly alien to them – in language, social customs, education, culture, religion and laws. They have had to adapt, slowly and painfully, to one obstacle after another. It has been very, very difficult for them, and most continue the daunting struggle to adapt, to succeed, to be happy.
Even though such traumas punctuate “Free at Last,” the exhibit also evokes vast hope. The vivid art works with their stunning folk designs and brilliant colors show the depth of Somalis’ cultural backgrounds and an unquenchable zest for life. The written biographies, many of them heartbreaking, also evoke hopes for the future – for higher education, for gainful employment, for a desire to improve society and for successful adaptation for them and their children to adapt happily to a new and often alien American world. In other words, the things all of us strive for.
Everyone living in the greater St. Cloud area is well aware of the presence of the many Somali immigrants in our midst. That presence has spawned some cruel prejudices, with claims these refugees are aloof, arrogant, stuck up or welfare cheats. Such claims are often made by people who have no idea about who these people are or what they have endured. Because of such starkly different cultural backgrounds, Somalis tend to be shy and hesitant, unlike talkative, outgoing, extroverted Americans. That shyness is often mistaken for “aloofness” or “arrogance.” The charge of being welfare cheats is equally absurd. Yes, of course, these immigrants have had necessary help from social agencies, churches, businesses and individuals, but to call that “cheating” is adding insult to injury.
A good way to counter such harmful prejudices is to go see “Free at Last.” Viewers are sure to come away with a renewed respect – and compassion – for these refugees, these good fellow human beings in our communities.