Refugee youth community mural welcomed addition to midtown

By Anne E. O’KeefeMural3
Rockford Area Arts Council

The Rock Valley College’s summer programming for refugees brought an exquisite piece of public art to the midtown neighborhood.

“I had the idea to mural because I wanted something fun and different for the students to do. A lot of the kids are not able to take elective art classes because they are busy taking ESL and additional math classes that don’t count for credit. I wanted to raise awareness of the refugee community in Rockford. I wanted the youth to put their mark on Rockford and feel like this is home and while taking pride in their culture,” said Morgan Smith, Rock Valley College, Student Liaison, Refugee and Immigrant Services.

The program Smith has been involved with for over five years supports 200 K-12 refugee students that are in RPS 205. The program includes parent orientation for new arrivals, encourages parent’s involvement and assistance at parent/ teacher conferences, and is very hands-on. Smith helps overcome transportation hurdles by taking students to appointments and picking them up from school when parents do not have access to transportation. She tutors at East and helps families register for school in the summer.

Smith is a tremendous ambassador for our community. This mural used the power of art to bring together people who may not have otherwise crossed paths.

Students involved were; Eric Nshiyimana, Junaina Abdulkareem, Zahraa Abdulkareem, Melina Munanga, Niang Cing, Tial Chin and Shukuru Mahirwe. Students represent Central Africa, Burma, and the Middle East.

The lead artist was Corey Hagberg, along with contributing artists Mario Martinez and Sarah Danielle Stewart. The canvas was provided by enthusiastic building owner, Rob Bauer, at First Avenue and 6th Street. Smith wishes to give special thanks to Luisa Cortes and Elizabeth Marriett, co-workers that volunteered a tremendous amount of time to the painting. Matt Youngblood, local videographer captured the project in its phases and will be producing a video of this impressive project.

The Rockford Area Arts Council is excited to have been a part of this project as it progressed. I was able to speak in support of the project at the Zoning Board. Smith spoke with such passion about the students she works with and this project that it was my honor to do so. RAAC is also pleased to have been able to provide an Arts Action Grant for this project from funds we receive from the Illinois Arts Council Agency. RAAC also helped by serving as a pass-through for other donations that came from the City of Rockford, Crusader Clinic Foundation, Urban Equity Properties and University of Illinois – Rockford, College of Medicine. In addition, Smith did a Kickstarter campaign for this project, showing her dedication and willingness to work hard for this project to become a reality for her students.

“They are eager to jump at any chance for self-expression through art,” Smith said of her students. Rockford is the lucky recipient of this beautiful piece of artwork that brought people together in celebration not only their differences, but their expression of unity.

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