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Immigrant students finding a voice in Tucson

Catalina HS project lets immigrants share their pasts & cultures

"Mexico has that spice and heat  that makes you feel like home." Christian Ledezma, Catalina student

"Mexico has that spice and heat that makes you feel like home." Christian Ledezma, Catalina student

Some fled the ravages of war and political persecution. Others came for a chance at a life free from poverty and discrimination. These refugee and immigrant children ended up in the heart of Tucson, at Catalina Magnet High School, 3645 E. Pima St.

They tell their stories of struggle and survival through “A New Country, A New Life: Tucson Teens Share Their Experiences with War and Immigration,” created through Catalina’s Finding Voice Project.

“When I was in India, I used to go door to door with a bowl begging for food, but was often turned away with a grumbling stomach,” Catalina senior Mariana Madden, 19, wrote.

“I myself lost a parent. It was a death which no child should see – a sick, graphic, horrible death,” she continued. “After many years of waiting to be adopted, I finally came to America. There was no one who spoke my language.

“Things changed when I came to Catalina Magnet High School. I started to reveal myself and open the doors I had shut for many years.”

Madden’s writing is part of a poster project created last year through Finding Voice. Nineteen of the posters will be shown through April 29 in storefront windows at One North Fifth apartments, 1 N. Fifth Ave.

Students wrote of experiences with war, poverty and violence in their home countries, and shared their stories of immigration.

They worked in teams to create photographic portraits that reflect their lives, experiences and dreams.

Some are working with the Tucson Pima Arts Council to document the impact their art has on the public. It is one of three projects in Americans for the Arts’ “Animating Democracy” Art and Civic Engagement Impact Initiative. Others projects are in New York and Los Angeles.

Finding Voice is a literary and visual arts program, led by teacher Julie Kasper and photographer- educator Josh Schachter. It is funded by the Every Voice in Action Foundation and Tucson Pima Arts Council.

It was established in 2006 to help refugee and immigrant youth at Catalina develop literacy skills by researching, photographing, writing and speaking about social issues.

About 40 Catalina students are participating in the project this year. Most have been in the U.S. less than five years. One arrived seven months ago.

“Dreams and Change” is the topic students selected this year. Some are creating digital stories. Others are making a film. One is organizing a conference on immigrant rights.

Kasper said the class is “a small United Nations.”

“They bring so many experiences with them,” she said. “It’s painful experience but it will help them to be more open minded and make a difference in this world.”

Schachter said the art produced “has been like unwrapping a gift.”

“They not only discovered themselves, they are helping Tucsonans discover a Tucson they might otherwise not see,” he said.

Tam Le, 18, is making a movie about racism. He left Vietnam last year to help care for his grandparents here.

“I miss my friends, my country, my traditions,” he said. “People in my neighborhood stay in their houses and don’t talk to anyone. I think they don’t want to talk to refugees and immigrants.”

Patience Gelee, 17, moved here from Liberia. “People were dying because of the war. My mother wanted a better life for her children.”

She was happy to come to the U.S. “I was coming here to achieve my dream to become a doctor.”

Vianey Valenzuela, 15, and her family moved here from Sonora. They are working toward becoming citizens.

“People should have an opportunity to get the American dream of better jobs and a better life,” she said.

Suleiman Siddiqi, 16, and his family settled here a year ago through the International Rescue Committee. Before he was born, his family fled Afghanistan for India.

“It’s horrible,” he said. “I haven’t seen my grandfather or grandmother or aunts and uncles and cousins. I cannot go back to my country.”

He hopes his words and photos will make an impact.

“I hope, if people listen, if they listen to my voice, it will prove the American dream is alive.”



What: Display of posters in Finding Voice Project’s “A New Country, A New Life: Tucson Teens Share Their Experiences with War and Immigration”

When: daily through April 29

Where: storefront windows at One North Fifth, 1 N. Fifth Ave.

Other photos and artwork are part of Tucson Youth Week’s “ARTivism Youth Art and Engagement” exhibit at Rocket Gallery, 270 E. Congress St., open through April 29; 4 to 6 p.m.Tuesdays through Fridays and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays

Price: free

Info: findingvoiceproject.org; tucsonpimaartscouncil.org; tucsonyouthweek.com

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