In September, 2017, I headed to Stuttgart, Germany, where a huge influx of migrants and refugees had recently arrived, leading to a bitter divide in the country in whether to embrace or reject these newcomers. I joined forces with local youth and refugee organizations and the Park Inn by Radisson hotel to lead a mural project that highlighted this important issue. This was the latest in our Adding Color to Lives series.
We had an amazing group! They were a bit older than usual, in their late teens to early twenties, which meant that they were mature and well behaved, and their energy was calm and focused. There were about 18 all together, and they hailed from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Gambia, Ghana, the Dominican Republic, and Germany. What a mix! All spoke at least basic German and were therefore able to communicate amongst themselves, but I noticed that they often split up into language cliques. Many spoke various levels of English, though some spoke none, which was challenging for me. Luckily, I was able to practice my terrible-but-slowly-getting-better Arabic, and spoke Spanish to the Dominican girl, Yary. Quite a few had come over since the big migrant wave of two years ago, entering Italy before making their way to Germany, where they were struggling to learn a new language and culture, find work, and deal with the traumas of war and displacement.
As expected, language and ethnic diversity were challenges at first, but I was happy to see friendships between groups being made over the course of the week. They worked together on different sections, often helping one another out, and bonded as they did so. By the end, there was a great energy to the group, and they were very excited and proud of the final mural.
The Mural: In the workshop, the youth focused on the theme of “journeys” for the mural composition. We were careful to include symbolic life journeys as well as migrations, as the 5 German-born participants hadn’t made a physical journey but had still been through their own struggles. As the symbolic road weaves its way across the wall, there are three faces: that of an elder, a youth (modeled after a participant) and a baby (which I modeled after Amara, my newborn daughter), representing various phases of the life journey. The central image is that of two hands turning the pages of a book, alluding to the narrative that is unfolding in all of our lives.
We had a long and high wall, so there was plenty of room for their content. On one side of the symbolic road, they painted about leaving their homelands and experiencing various challenges and suffering. An Afghani participant, Tamim, painted the Kabul Airport, the last place that he saw of his homeland before leaving 2 years ago. Mohammed from Iran painted a sign along the road pointing back to “slavery” and forward to “freedom.” One young man from Gambia, Nuha, painted a mango hanging from a tree with a hand reaching for it. He explained that in his country, there was often so little to eat that mangoes were all they could find. Lamin, another Gambian, came up with one of the main images of the left side; a truck filled with people heading through the desert to escape conflict and poverty, which was his personal experience. The hotel manager, Norbert, an East German, got involved by painting the Berlin Wall.
As the road moves to the right, their artwork focuses on representing their current situations and, further along, their goals for what they’d like to see as their journey continues. These included personal objectives, such as family and career goals, as well as what they envision for their country or the world. For example, one Iraqi young man, Abdullah, painted a mosque and a church next to one another to show that he wanted different religions to peacefully coexist in Europe and the Middle East. Yari, the Dominican girl, dreamed of traveling the world one day, and therefore painted the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and New York City. Three German girls who were very passionate about art– Anika, Michaela and Anisa– created images of healthy families, flying balloons to show hope, space travel to symbolize shooting for one’s dreams, and a figure reading to allude to education and story-telling. The Ghanaian, Jonathan, created images of music and dancing to show joyful celebration and cultural heritage.
Challenges and Successes: The wall was very high, but luckily the hotel rented a lift, which helped immensely. On one of the final evenings, after everyone had left except me, I was up on the lift working on a top area. A group of football hooligans returning from a match at the nearby stadium decided that it would be funny to enter the cab of the truck and turn off the engine, making it impossible for me to come down on the lift. They ran off laughing and cursing me. I was so annoyed! I was able to climb down and turned it back on, but in order to make the lift come back down I needed someone to put their foot on a specific button on the truck while I climbed back up and realigned it. (I know, it sounds confusing, but that’s the way this lift worked– it basically becomes stuck if you turn it off and back on again, and you need two people to fix it.) Luckily, a nice couple came by (also football fans, but apparently not of the hooligan variety) and complimented our work. I thanked them and asked for their help fixing the lift, which they happily did, and I was able to climb up and make the lift work again while they pressed the button down below. Phew!
Another challenge, as is the case with many large-scale, one-week projects, was completing it in time without collapsing from exhaustion. I ended up working 12 and 13-hour days, and they brought out lights so I could paint past dark, after the kids had left. Luckily Sven from the hotel’s Responsible Business department was a huge help making sure everything went smoothly.
On the last day, they stood in front of community members and many Park Inn employees, who presented them with gifts and applauded their contribution to the city. There was food, music and plenty of photos taken. I was moved when some of the youth gave me gifts that they had collectively purchased, including baby clothes for my daughter, Amara, and chocolates, as well as a drawing and a letter of appreciation. Thanks to everyone Sven, everyone at the hotel and the local organizations, and the youth participants for all their inspiring images and hard work!