Refugee talents on display - Catholic Courier

Refugee talents on display

Lourdes Santiesteban was at the top of her profession in Cuba. She was the conductor of the National Symphony of Cuba and the National Youth Symphony of Cuba.

But she gave it all up in 2006, including the students she mentored, when she feigned a headache and slipped out of sight of the Cuban guard who had been assigned to watch her during a trip to a Mexican university.

Soon, with her heart pounding in her chest, she had fled across the border and begged for political asylum, which she was granted after several hours of questioning.

Finally, she was able to join her son, then a violin student at the Eastman School of Music and who now is studying for his master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University.

“I miss my students,” Santiesteban said. “I miss my home, my brother, my friends.”

Yet Santiesteban brought a little bit of her home to the United States as well when she performed three pieces of Cuban music on piano during the Sept. 13 opening of an art exhibit during a program sponsored by Rochester’s Catholic Family Center. The event also was a fundraiser for Catholic Family Center’s Refugee Resettlement program. “Our Story Together … Celebrating the Refugee Experience Through the Arts” will be on display through Oct. 31 at Valley Manor’s 1570 Gallery.

A friend referred Santiesteban to CFC, where she was able to get help finding a job. She began working for DocuLegal and plays on request at the Eastman School of Music.

“The freedom you have here is really special to me,” Santiesteban said.

One of the reasons why Santiesteban and other refugees were called upon to take part in the art exhibit is that they often have left their lives behind as they flee, said Carol Anne DeMoulin, CFC’s senior vice president of development and marketing. Many immigrants and refugees are focused on surviving and blending in rather than on telling their stories, she said.

“They are needed to get embedded and assimilated into the culture,” said DeMoulin, noting that Refugee Services hopes to make the art exhibit an annual event.

About 350 legal immigrants resettle in the Rochester area each year through Catholic Family Center, said Ben Murphy, director of Refugee Services and Employment and Loan Services. The resettlement staff numbers 10 people, who help coordinate an extensive network of volunteers. Resettlement teams help people furnish their new homes, teach them skills to help them survive in the American culture, such as how to use a microwave or stove, tutor them, interpret for them, and help them find jobs.

Oppression is often a reason why people have left their native country, Murphy said.

“This is what we need to celebrate; it’s a sad story, but also a hopeful story,” he said.

Hardship and hope are both evident in the paintings of Murtaza Pardais, who was a professor of fine arts at Kabul University in Afghanistan for 14 years. After his home was burned by the Taliban, Pardais and his family fled to Pakistan, where they lived for seven years.

One of Pardais’ paintings shows a suicide bomber with explosives strapped across his body. He is standing in a crowded market, with young children around him reacting in shock and horror. Pardais said the painting came from a scene he witnessed earlier this year while he was visiting Afghanistan after a 14-year hiatus.

While he was living in Pakistan, one of his works of art, “Friendship between Afghanistan and the U.S.,” was on display at the U.S. Cultural Center. In 1997, a U.S. government official saw the painting, learned his story, and offered him and his family amnesty to come to the United States in 2000. They first arrived in Chicago, and moved to Rochester in 2002.

He said he’s proud to be part of the exhibit.

“Today, I’m very happy with this exhibit with different artists and different cultures,” Pardais said.

Pardais paints in his garage studio and sells his work at art festivals in Rochester. He also has published two books and is working on a third that chronicle his journey as a refugee as seen through his artwork. He noted that he has found it difficult to make a living as an artist in this country.

Pardais’ experience and his love for peace also is expressed through his art. In one painting, a woman looks through a swirl of barbed wire, but one of her eyes is caged, symbolizing that she is blinded by the past.

In 2003, one of his watercolor paintings was chosen for the Corn Hill Arts Festival poster. Another painting in the exhibit takes an idyllic look at the diversity of the Corn Hill neighborhood, where Pardais included different families living harmoniously, such as an interracial couple, and families of several different faiths, such as Muslim, Buddhist and Christian. All are underneath an American flag.

“This is my ideal,” Pardais said.

Other artists in the exhibit included batik artist Charles Matthias of Sierra Leone; sculptor Jerry Reffell of Sierra Leone; weaver Halima Luhiso, a Somali Bantu; and Toma Yusif of Southern Sudan and Renata Manirakiza of Burundi, who both crochet. The show also included embroidered textiles from Kutukira Mhiji, a Somali Bantu; Enaney Gardewu of Ethiopia; and Shamso Mugulo, a Somali Bantu.

The opening of the exhibit included a performance by Afrikuumba Dance and Drum and a backstrap loom-weaving demonstration by the Karen refugees from Burma, who use traditional weaving techniques to make bags, shirts and sarongs.

According to Catholic Family Center, the Karen refugees have been arriving in large numbers in Rochester this summer. They fled their Burmese homes more than a decade ago due to ethnic cleansing that targeted them. Many Karen have been hiding for years within Burma, but most eventually had to flee to Thailand, where more than 155,000 refugees have been living for more than a decade. This summer many have been moving from refugee camps to the United States.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The gallery at 1570 East Ave. is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday or by appointment. For details, contact curator Jean Pope Boyle at 585-770-1923. Details about the refugee art exhibit also are available at

Tags: Refugees
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