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Bridging Cultures: Portland High Students' Mural Captures Challenges
08/27/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Students at Portland High School will have a new way of looking at art - and at each other - when they resume classes next week. A large, three-panel mural is now on permanent display in one of the school's main stairwells. Produced by a group of refugee and immigrant students, it tells the story, from their perspective, of what it's like to leave behind a homeland and become a teenager in Portland, Maine. Susan Sharon has more.

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Bridging Cultures: Portland High Students' Mural Listen
 Duration:
3:46

Mural 3

The mural idea was conceived by Maria Darrow, a former resident of Falmouth who is now a studio art major at Amherst College in Massachusetts. She got funding from the school's Center for Public Engagement, selected a group of student artists to help her with the work and then spent several hours over many days interviewing them about their lives to come up with themes for the project: the past, the present and the future.

Mural 4The group then got to work, constructing the mural around a central doorway (above) in the high school.

"When we talked about the experience of coming to a new country and being in a new place, we agreed that it was sort of like being in a doorway, sort of like this, where you sort of are in two places at once," Darrow says. "You have the things you remember and you have the things you're looking forward to, and it's hard for other people to understand that sometimes."

Darrow says she was always appreciative of the artwork on display in her own school, works created by her friends and herself that reflected their life experiences. She's also interested in languages. There are 52 of them spoken at Portland High School, and Darrow says she had heard stories about the challenges facing immigrant students at Portland High - students like Zahara Rikn, who moved to the U.S. from Iraq five years ago.

"I didn't speak any English. I didn't have any American friends at all," Rikn says. "And it was hard as well to learn subjects - science. And so the first year was really hard."

Mural 1Rikn (center in photo at left, with
Maryam Abudllah on the left)) says she spent that difficult first year skipping trips to the amusement park with her family, and instead studying her English dictionary and reading every day after school. She says she often felt isolated and alone. But her efforts paid off.

"After one year I was able to take honor classes, and in science, I had all As," she says.

Susan Sharon: "Do you have more friends now?"

Zahra Rikn: "Yes, I have more friends now."

Painted into the panels of the mural is a large golden phoenix, the mythical bird that symbolizes rebirth. There are also the words "never again" on an African drum to recognize the genocide in Rawanda, along with African dancers, roots of a tree to symbolize the importance of tradition - and in the middle of one panel, a large, golden heart.

Mural 5"I'm looking at the golden heart in the middle and I'm thinking of a conversation I had with Zahara," Darrow says. "When I asked her, 'If you could tell other students something that you think would help them understand each other, what would you tell them?' And she said: 'I think I would tell them to look not with their eyes but with their hearts.'"

"With Eyes in Our Hearts" has now become the title of the installation. Portland High School senior Quentin Ndayishimiye says, for him, the project is about love - love for his native Burundi, for Africa, for art and for his friends.

"I think Portland High School is special because it has many (much) diversity. You have many kinds - Somalian, from Sudan, everywhere" Ndayishimiye says. "That's why it's so special, this mural,for it to go in Portland High School."

Mural 2Ndayishimiye (left) has only been in the U.S. for a year and one month. He's on the soccer team, loves art and hopes to become an architect.

Looking to the future is also something sophomore Maryam Abudllah of Iraq tries to do. Much of her artwork is reflected in the mural, including a scene of a young girl and birds flying out of a cage. In Iraq, she says, women are told what to do. The girl in the mural wouldn't be able to finish school.

"And you know, here, she's free," Abudllah says, "just like the birds."

Artist Maria Darrow says it's her hope that the mural can help students understand each other a little bit better, without having to use words.

Photos:  Susan Sharon

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