Erin art exhibit aims to change how people think about refugees

ERIN – An upcoming event here seeks to change the narrative around the refugee crisis, while offering refugees a pathway to healing and financial stability. 

Art created by refugees will be featured in For the Love of Art, a pop-up exhibit at the Erin United Church on June 7. 

About 45 pieces from refugees of all ages and levels of experience will be available for purchase, with proceeds from the art sales going directly to the artists. 

Each art piece will be accompanied by a biography written by the artist, sharing their personal story to help people understand refugees’ experiences and hardships. 

The artists, whose home countries include Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cameroon, Congo and Sierra Leone, are children and adults currently living in Greece. 

In 2022, almost 13,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Greece by sea, and more than 6,000 arrived by land, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 

This brings the number of asylum seekers in Greece to almost 120,000 and refugees to about 50,000, most of whom are unable to find work to support their families financially, states the International Rescue Committee.

Creating and selling art is one way some of these migrants can make ends meet. 

For the Love of Art is a drop-in event that runs on June 7 from 3 to 8pm with short presentations at 4 and 7pm about the refugee crisis in Greece.  

The presentations are led by Kayra Martinez, the founder and director of Love Without Borders, an entirely volunteer-run non-profit organization that provides housing, art supplies, and art workshops for refugees in Greece.

At the end of the evening there will be a live auction with a selection of the art pieces. The proceeds from the auction will go to support Love Without Borders.

Love Without Borders

“Since 2015 we have probably helped thousands of people,” Martinez said, noting Love Without Borders is “a very small organization with two of us on the ground.” 

Martinez will talk about the current situation, the struggles refugees in Greece face, and Love Without Borders’ work. 

It was not initially Martinez’s plan for art to be a core part of Love Without Borders’ work, but it happened by “serendipity” after she “took some paper and crayons into the tent” in a refugee camp in 2016, she told the Advertiser during a phone interview from Athens. 

Kayra Martinez, founder and director of Love Without Borders, will be travelling to Canada for Erin’s Love of Art exhibit on June 7. Submitted photos

The art program provides an opportunity for refugees to leave “the horrible conditions” of the refugee camps and gives them the space and supplies to create.

“The way they create and the way they use the colours is vital,” Martinez said.

“That’s where the healing takes place.”  

She said it is important that Love Without Borders volunteers do not influence the art the refugees create.

Many of the artists chose to use bright colours, which Martinez believes represents their resilience, hope and strength. 

The Love Without Borders art program empowers refugees to “create a different experience for themselves,” as they come out of such a challenging time in their lives with new skills as artists, with some able to “pay their own rent with sales from their art,” she said. 

Love Without Borders has brought art from refugees to 141 events in four different continents. 

Examples of Jameel’s artwork. The teenage refugee began creating art eight months ago, inspired by his desire to share his feelings and memories. He chooses vibrant colours to represent the “brightness of the world.” Submitted photos

Refugees in Greece

An important facet of their work is increasing awareness about the refugee crisis in Greece. 

“There are people losing their lives every day crossing the Aegean Sea and other bodies of water,” Martinez said. 

“They are losing their lives and there is not enough discussion, not enough information about this.”

She added Love Without Borders aims to bring the issue back into the spotlight. 

“We want people to understand about the plight of the refugees,” she said, noting they are working on “changing the narrative so that we can understand these people are humans and everyone is deserving of shelter and a warm place to live and food to eat.”

The event is hosted by Erin Refugee Action and the Erin United Church, with support from Martinez, who will be traveling from Athens with the artwork.

Barbara Harrison, a volunteer with Erin Refugee Action, said there will be a “variety of art that is quite representative of the people who are involved” and the different countries they are from. 

Harrison has worked with refugees in Greece and calls the situation “dire,” noting the Greek government provides “minimal to no support for refugees there, even if they are given asylum.” 

She said many refugees are homeless and living on the streets in Athens. 

Examples of Jameel’s artwork. The teenage refugee began creating art eight months ago, inspired by his desire to share his feelings and memories. He chooses vibrant colours to represent the “brightness of the world.” Submitted photos

Erin Refugee Action

Erin Refugee Action formed in 2016 to “take action broadly related to refugees,” Harrison said, and the group has since sponsored 15 refugees from four Syrian and Afghan families to move to the area. 

These families have been invited to attend the art exhibit in Erin. 

Erin Refugee Action host a range of educational fundraising events covering topics like intercultural communication and teaching people how to write their names in Arabic. 

These events aim to “help people understand the obstacles that newcomers to Canada might face,” and to help locals be “as supportive and welcoming as possible,” Harrison said. 

“The community has been quite active in supporting the refugees that have been sponsored,” she noted. 

Harrison has known Martinez since 2016 and describes her as an “Energizer bunny,” who balances her work as a flight attendant and volunteering with Love Without Borders. 

She said Martinez’s commitment keeps growing “stronger and stronger as needs get greater and greater.

“I really admire her and this organization because they really respect people and work very ethically.” 

She notes Love Without Borders is not based on a charitable model, but instead focuses on helping refugees become self-sufficient. 

“That’s one of the things that I admire so much about this project.”