Aminata Sawyer does not remember the rebel attack that took her father’s life. She was just a baby.
But the 16-year-old has a clear memory of other attacks in her native Liberia, and still more in Sierra Leone, where her aunt and uncle fled with her as refugees.
“They would lock people in their homes and set them on fire. That is what the flame is for,” Aminata said, pointing to a closeup photograph of her face divided by a long flame. “My life was like that in Africa. A lot of fire and suffering.”
Aminata is a refugee and student of English as a second language at Catalina Magnet High School. She and 46 other ESL students from 10 countries, including the Marshall Islands, Sudan, Afghanistan and Mexico, spent the semester exploring their lives in Tucson and comparing them to their lives in their home countries through a joint writing and photography project. Their photos and writings will be displayed in an exhibit that opens Monday night in City Councilwoman Nina Trasoff’s office. The free exhibit will run through July 31.
For many of the students, life in Tucson means opportunity.
Aminata took a photograph of a gurgling fountain to reflect her life today.
“The water is cool. Not like my life in Africa. Here I have a chance to go to school and become a great person,” Aminata said in softly accented, clearly enunciated English. Aminata has picked up English quickly in the year and half she has been here. It’s her fifth language, after African tribal languages Kiro, Mende, Temne and Limba.
Aminata’s teacher Julie Kasper said the project engages her students.
“They grow up with TV and video games so the images really grab them,” she said.
Students stretch their English skills by writing poems, letters and essays that accompany the photos and by interacting with the many visitors who come to the class to speak about refugees, immigrants and photography.
“I’ll get kids voluntarily turning in four drafts of work,” Kasper said. “That normally just doesn’t happen.”
Kasper co-taught the project with Josh Schacter, a Tucson-based photographer and educator.
Sadaf Hakeem, 15, from Afghanistan, came to the United States as a refugee from Pakistan, where her family fled to escape repression under the Taliban during the 1990s.
She used the project to explore the balance of her older beliefs with newfound freedom.
In one photo, she shows her 18-year-old sister partially obscured by a head scarf.
Girls in Pakistan had to wear such scarves outside and had little opportunity to go to school, Sadaf said.
She is proud of her Muslim faith and wears the scarf when she prays, but here she can get an education and wants to become a doctor.
Many of the students speak readily about the greater opportunity the United States offers them, but it is not without cost, and their photos reflect that.
Kathya Castro, 16, who moved here four years ago from Obregon, Son., works after school until 11 p.m. as an assistant manager in a Mexican restaurant to help her parents and two younger brothers. She squeezes in homework during lunch or after work. Her manager quickly promoted her for her hard work.
One of her photos shows her asleep at the table in the restaurant, exhausted.
The project helped her examine her life and express her feelings, she said.
“I feel like I’m sacrificing my teenage years,” Kathya said. “I feel like I’m living like an adult.”
What: An opening reception for an exhibit of photographs and writing by Catalina Magnet High School English as a Second Language students
When: 5-7 p.m. Monday
Where: Ward VI Office, 3202 E. First St.
For more information call, 791-4601.