Alum helps immigrant and refugee children during pandemic with multilingual story time

The pandemic disrupted lives in many ways, but it also gave birth to some innovations, including one that is helping children who have experienced displacement as refugees, asylum seekers or immigrants.

In 2020, the Lynden Sculpture Garden began reaching out to youngsters ages 4 to 8 with its virtual HOME: Story Time, featuring childrens books read in a variety of languages.

One of the leaders of the project is Claudia Orjuela, an alumna who earned her masters degree in art education at UWM and serves as art educator at Lynden.

The idea grew out of a World Refugee Day celebration in 2019, when Lynden worked with the Milwaukee Public Library to set up a multilingual book corner.

“Searching for relevant titles, we found that there are many children’s books about refugees, but very few books are written or illustrated by them,” Orjuela said.

A way to start conversations

When the pandemic hit, the educators decided to take the idea and expand it to a virtual story time.

“The story time is an opportunity to start conversations with children about displacement, adaptation, and belonging,” Orjuela said. Children were not going to school, and we had families who did not speak English as their first language.

HOME: Story Time, which uploads and screens a new episode  on the third Wednesday of every month, offers stories read by community members in multiple languages in addition to English, and combines books with art projects.

Stories are streamed on Facebook Live and posted on the Home-at-Lynden virtual platform, and are recorded so they are available at any time, along with handouts and, most recently, a guide for teachers, parents and advanced learners. Themes often focus on refugees and immigrants and are designed to appeal to the Milwaukee areas diverse communities. The program has featured books in Arabic, French, Vietnamese and Korean. Other languages now include Spanish, Burmese, Dari/Farsi, Pashto, Hmong, Ojibwe, Japanese and Mandarin.

While Lynden hasnt been able to track specific demographics, feedback through community organizations has been positive, including from partner organizations, according to Orjuela. Since the start of the HOME multilingual story time program, its videos have had a total of 5,000 views.

Orjuela, who was born in Colombia, coordinates the program with Lyndens Kim Khaira, community engagement specialist, whose homeland is Malaysia.

Collaboration and community participation

Community participation has been an important component. HOME: Story Time is a collaboration with Milwaukee Public Library, the Islamic Resource Center, Hanan Refugee Relief Group, Alliance Francaise de Milwaukee and the Milwaukee African Womens Association, among other organizations. Orjuela designs an art activity and contextual materials for readers from the community to go with each story to give the children a deeper understanding of the stories.

The art activity at the end of each episode is an invitation to further reflect on the book through hands-on art making. For example, children created a window mural responding to breaking boundaries and frontiers, and created compositions using found materials.

Children need to be given the opportunity to express themselves through multiple ways, not just verbally,Orjuela said. Integrating art and literacy is a great way to reach a wide range of learners. Learners with different abilities and non-English speakers gain access through the visual language of art, she added.

In addition to her work with the HOME project at Lynden, Orjuela also designs and implements arts-based and environmental programming and instructional materials; develops and leads classes, outdoors experiences and summer camps for children, youth, and families; and leads moonlight nature walks and other story and art activities.

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