One of the most creative, difficult, and fun exercises that the OWWR sewing classes have taken on is making story quilts. We learned early on that many, perhaps even most, of our students have no reading or writing skills. Communication is almost entirely oral through whole lives. So, for family stories to be remembered and shared, they depend upon memories. There is no “family bible” with notations of dates and significant events.
Yet many of the folks in our classes have dramatic experience that seemed to be important to be kept alive through generations. Ann Say, Director of Education for OWWR, happens also to be a very creative quilter. She hit upon the idea of capturing family stories in the form of especially designed quilts, a very durable and malleable media.
The first challenge was to design a way to demonstrate for folks what such a story quilt might look like. Ann created a quilt with the Say family experiences with refugee resettlement. The results were so dramatic and compelling that several of her students stepped forward wanting to do the same thing with their family stories.
Then pictures were collected, some photographs, but also pictures drawn by mostly the children to show their recollections of the journey from homes devastated by violence into new homes in Kansas City. Ann has software that makes it possible to transfer those pictures onto fabric that can be sewn into pattern designs that are often quite compelling.
One family Ann worked with on this was from South Sudan. The family consists of Grandmother who speaks no English but is the matriarch and principle care giver for the children, Dad and Mom who both work very hard to gain language and experience to support their family, and seven children who are six to sixteen years old. Six of the children are theirs and one is a nephew who was able to travel with them to the US while his family finishes their entrance requirements and will follow.
Ann went to their home to begin the story quilt process. She asked that Grandma be brought into the project, so Mom explained what they were up to. With that Grandma called all of the children to sit at her feet while she told them the story that they had not heard. It all began in a small village. Life in the village was peaceful and very happy. The grown ups would do their day’s work and then gather around a fire ring in the evening. They would sing songs and hymns and tell stories about their lives, all very pleasant. Then, one night, the bombs fell and their village was completely destroyed. They fled on foot as fast as they could run! They ran by night and hid and slept by day for over a year that it took them to get to Ethiopia and a refugee camp where they could be safe. For the next 18 years they lived in that camp, waiting for an opportunity to move to a more permanent home. Mom and Dad met in the camp and were married there. All of the children were born there. So, you see, they had no experience of the earlier life in the village.
Since they were not able to bring any photos with them during this trek, Ann asked the children to draw pictures of what they heard from Grandma and what they remembered from the camp. First came a drawing of a camp fire with people arranged around it, then people running, running, running. Then came drawings of a school house, two of a church, one of camp dwellings, and finally one of a tree. Mom asked the child who drew the tree what it meant. Her daughter said, “Mom, don’t you remember? You got home too late one day to receive the food delivery from UNHCR. You were so worried that we could not eat that you sent us out to play while you figured out what to do. I went to play under my favorite tree and there on the ground I found some money! I brought it to you and you praised God for caring for us and you said that now we would have something to eat after all.”
WOW! This story quilt has some power in it! When it was all finished Ann brought it back to the family for their approval—it is theirs, not OWWR’s. Grandma touched the village picture and said “happy,” then touched the people running and the camp pictures and said “sad.” Finally she touched the Kansas City pictures and she said “happy!” Then she put her arm around Ann and she held her arm across her own breast, then across Ann’s breast, then across her own breast and she said, “Now they will not forget!” And they have not forgotten. The nephew still longs for the day when he will be reunited with his family. In the meantime, this family continues to praise God for the gift of coming here to live in safety and prosperity.