Artist Renders Refugee Children’s Stories In Charcoal: DCist

Benni, 12, resettled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, from Ethiopia. (Photo by Claire Salvo)

From a young age, Claire Salvo has been surrounded by a family that cares about the concerns of refugees. At her mom’s urging, her family hosted a Bosnian family for a week on the way to resettlement when Salvo was six years old, and a Turkish family had a similar arrangement with them a decade later.

“I think she thought it was a really hands-on, direct way she can help instead of donating money or picking up canned food or something,” Salvo tells DCist. “She felt compelled to provide more than that for people who really needed help.”

Now Salvo is carrying on that tradition, in a different way. She’s constructed her first art exhibit, “Refuge,” around charcoal illustrations and written biographies of refugee families from three countries who moved to the United States in search of a more peaceful life. Salvo found common ground in all of her subjects, who currently live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she was raised and has since returned. The exhibit will visit D.C. for one night only, tonight on the rooftop of 7th Flats in Shaw, before heading back to Lancaster and eventually traveling to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and New York City.

Since graduating from New York University in 2011, Salvo had worked as a DJ and music manager for a few years before returning to Lancaster, eager to pursue a different and more creative path. The idea for “Refuge”came from — who else — her mother, who suggested on a whim last fall that Salvo draw some members of the city’s refugee population, the largest in the nation.

Salvo and her mother took a trip to Church World Service, a local refugee resettlement organization, and she made what she now considers a half-formed pitch to Stephanie Gromek, a community resource coordinator who quickly took to the idea. Soon enough, Salvo found herself sitting in the homes of four families — two from Ethiopia and one each from Syria and Somalia.

Ayat, 16, resettled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, from Somalia. (Photo by Claire Salvo)

Salvo’s original plan was to focus her interviews on the families’ ten children, asking what they like to do and what they’re most afraid of in the United States. But language barriers proved difficult to overcome at times, and Salvo found herself engaging more with the parents, who offered a perspective she hadn’t anticipated. Despite Lancaster’s reputation as a Republican-dominated area, littered with Donald Trump for President signs in the run-up to the election, the families were overjoyed to be in America.

“The horrors they’ve seen from where they come from — to them, America is perfect,” Salvo says. “They couldn’t stop talking about how friendly everyone was, how nice and happy people were. It really puts it in perspective. We tend to take things for granted and get caught up in the little things and complain…

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