South Florida Students Paint Personal Gift for Refugees

The Memory Project at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School is creating portraits for refugee children.

(Published Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017)

The photographs are striking because every one of them shows a child smiling. If every picture tells a story, these pictures would all tell happy tales of childhood, except that the kids in the photos are Syrians who have been displaced by that country’s brutal civil war. The children live in a refugee camp, and most are destitute.

None of the students in Lauren Rosa’s art class could possibly know the daily terror and deprivation the faces in the pictures have endured.

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"It makes me sad that they don’t really have anything so to do this project, it’s an honor, really, because I can give them something they really don’t have,” said Angelina Lazo, a senior art student at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School.

The project she’s referring to is called the Memory Project. That charitable organization provides the photographs, and the art students create portraits from the pictures. Every child depicted in the photos knows the sounds, the smells, and the traumatic sights of war.

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"We want them to be light-hearted and happy and sent a positive message about, somebody cared enough to make this portrait for them,” said the teacher, Lauren Rosa.

The Memory Project takes the pictures and sends them to schools, and then delivers the finished portraits to kids in the refugee camp.

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"They might not even have their own parents anymore, no family members, they have no personal belongings," said Rosa. "Now they have something personal, personal that was created just for them, so it’s really moving for my kids."

Making the portraits, gazing into the same face for weeks, has an effect on attitudes.

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"It's a combination of being kind of sad that they’re in that situation but then happy because I’m able to give them something," said Gwyneth Morris, a senior.

The impact of their work isn’t just a theoretical concept for these students, they actually get to see how their portraits are received by the kids on the other side of the planet.

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The Memory Project shoots video as they hand out the portraits, and the class will get to see the video featuring the Syrian refugee kids in April.

The older kids in the class have already had the experience of seeing their work given to the child for whom it was intended. Last year, the class work went to an orphanage in Colombia. The year before, they created portraits for children in Ethiopia.

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"It really makes you think about how you can impact people that you don’t even know who are halfway across the world, just by doing an art piece, it’s something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives,” said senior Maddy Dittman.

As you watch the students work with their colored pencils, line by line, faces appear on the paper, all of them smiling. They are moments worth capturing.

"And if that one bright spot can stay with them for a lifetime, or help them through this difficult time they’re going through, it’s really meaningful," Rosa said.

It’s also a testament to the power of art.