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New downtown Kitchener mural marks decade of helping refugees

KITCHENER — Grade 6 students kneel in an alleyway in downtown Kitchener with paintbrushes and little paper cups full of paint in hand.

Their mission: to help paint a mural for Welcome Home Refugee Housing Community’s building on King Street.

The Laurentian Hills Christian School students are just a few of the dozens of volunteers dropping in to contribute to Welcome Home’s commemorative mural.

It marks 10 years of assisting refugees and bringing awareness to the organization.

The mural, called Stories of New Beginnings, is about seven metres high by 20 metres wide, and was designed by local visual artist Pamela Rojas.

The art project illustrates Welcome Home’s history of taking in refugees.

Even on a cool, overcast spring day, the kids enthusiastically paint rolling green grasses and large blocks of bold colours in the form of tents, books, trees and people.

“The good thing about using art in this process is that everyone is on the same level,” Rojas said. “Everyone has a brush in hand. There is no language barrier here to help.”

Anyone can help out, and Rojas often has passersby stopping to grab a paintbrush and join in the team effort. It is truly communal art, she said.

“And that is a part of what we want to tell the newcomers, that you are a part of this community.”

For ten years, Welcome Home assisted refugees with settlement programs like English language skills, learning how to adapt to winter and also therapy to help overcome their trauma.

Rojas has worked closely with marginalized groups all over the world with community art projects and art therapy.

She browsed through years of photos of the refugee house to develop the concept of the mural. It depicts the lives of refugees at the house: camping, riding bikes, reading books, canoeing and playing music.

It also represents the emotions felt by many refugees in the form of large glass bottles with cork stoppers. One man is painted with a bottle in hand that has a lighthouse inside it. “This is hope,” Rojas said as she carefully paints the pale, blue sky that surrounds the lighthouse.

Another bottle is filled with little red hearts: love. Another with crosses in a cemetery: loss.

“It is like a book, but in visual form,” Rojas said. “You see that all the stress they go through shows up, even months later.” She points to a large bottle in the middle of the mural: trauma.

It depicts images of life in a refugee camp with rolling army tanks, cramped quarters, tents and wire fences.

But this trauma is what the refugees leave behind, she said, and a larger bottle next to it depicts life in Canada — full of hope, promise and security.

Rojas was born in Chile and travelled the world before coming to Kitchener in 2005. She worked as a settlement counsellor at the Reception House Kitchener Waterloo for five years and then quit to create art full time. Her work reflects her passions for art and social justice.

Even though Rojas was trained in sculpture, she worked under famous Spanish muralist and ceramicist Alfredo Ratinoff and became hooked on murals.

Her style is influenced by the Latin American muralist movement of the 1970s where murals were used as political tools of protest and colourful messages of celebration.

“My style is based in the simplicity of the design, but also in the complexity of capturing the message,” Rojas said.

Rojas also painted the sprawling mural outside the KitchenerWaterloo Multicultural Centre and, more recently, a series of murals painted with refugee children at their temporary home, the Reception House.

The process of planning the mural took almost a year and it is completely funded by donations and helped by dozens of volunteers. It will take the next few weeks to complete, and Welcome House will celebrate with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on June 16.

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