Sounds of different languages layered the air, competing and melding, as a group of women did their best to communicate with their neighbors in Spanish, Arabic, French, Lao and broken English. A dozen refugee mothers gathered around a folding table in the basement fellowship hall of Highland Baptist Church, waiting for the classes they take through Kentucky Refugee Ministries to start.
The organization’s Family Center provides employment-readiness training, language classes, cultural orientation, parenting seminars and other courses for refugee women whose children are too young for school.
“So we provide childcare for those women while they are in an English class,” said coordinator Allison Smithkier.
On this particular Thursday, Chenoweth Allen, a licensed professional art therapist, prepared bowls of glassy beads and bands of metallic wire for the women’s bimonthly art therapy session. The program is funded through grants for expressive therapies by the Cralle and Norton Foundations.
Art and expressive therapy is often used as an alternative to traditional talk therapy, says Jean Romano, licensed professional clinical counselor and president of the Kentucky Art Therapy Association
“For someone who has experienced a traumatic event, the memories are often tied to complex physical sensations that can be difficult to identify, let alone describe and work through in talk therapy,” Romano said.
“Using creative art media within an art therapy session can be an alternative, and sometimes ‘safer’ way of accessing and processing those memories and feelings so that someone can lessen the overall impairment,” she added.
Many refuges come to the United States to escape persecution in their home countries. Art therapy breaks the language barriers, and helps the refugees work through the trauma they have suffered with others under similar circumstances.
During this session, Allen urged the women to “make a gift for themselves.” They turned wire and beads into bracelets, and Allen urged the women to think of people or places that were special to them while beading, which lead to a sharing of stories as they finished.
“For some women, it is a chance to identify and name colors and practice the few English words they know, like tree and flower and house and children,” Allen said. “For others, it is a chance to tell just a piece of their story.”
During the story-sharing time, the women have the chance to hear from women from other cultures and nations who have had or are having similar experiences, both as mothers and as refugees. Allen says the process can help them feel less alone in their fears and loneliness.
“They support each other by just listening, even if they don’t understand the words being spoken,” she said. “They understand the heart-felt emotions behind the art that has been created.”
“I am always surprised at the end of a session how something that you don’t think is going [to be] real powerful turns out to be so,” she added.
On this day, two women from Cuba, Jennie and Norma, tearfully explained that the blue and gold beads in their bracelets reminded them of the beaches of their home country.
“We miss Cuba very much,” Jennie said, “But America has so many more opportunities.”