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A Message of Friendship

To watch ​via Vimeo, please click here.

In the middle of March, before COVID-19 curtailed global travel, members of a nonprofit flew to Malaysia with 5,500 portraits. They brought the works of art to a school for refugee children and other underprivileged youth, thus completing a nationwide project that included students from Rubidoux High School.
Portrait of Lam Lun by Amy YangThe Memory Project is a Wisconsin-based nonprofit organization that connects students globally through art. For one of their programs, advanced art students are invited to create portraits for children facing substantial challenges around the world so that they may feel seen, recognized, and celebrated.
Thirty-one Rubidoux students in grades 10 through 12 were among the three thousand high school artists who participated last school year. Enrolled in Advanced Drawing and Painting, each RHS artist received a photo of a six-year-old child in Malaysia along with their first name and favorite color.
“The photos of these adorable kids immediately melted the hearts of our high schoolers,” said Jennifer Stewart, visual arts teacher at Rubidoux High. “Many noted how drawing [the portraits] drew them closer to the children, and some students connected with the emotional trauma experienced by many refugees.”
Portrait of Ko Ko Jayden HermosilloAccording to the UN Refugee Agency, an overwhelming majority of refugees come to Malaysia from Myanmar, but also hail from nations such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Syria. Fleeing conflict or persecution, refugees are not legally recognized under Malaysian law. They have limited access to health care and are prohibited from working legally. Denied entry to the formal education system, refugee children are taught in community-based learning centers. The Dignity for Children Foundation, another nonprofit organization, operates the learning center that partnered with The Memory Project to receive the portraits.
Given this context, the RHS assignment sketched lessons not only in art, but also in culture and empathy. As the students learned more about refugee issues and trauma, they formed stronger bonds with their counterparts. “I felt like I was reaching out to them and letting them know that they’re not alone,” said Hector Diaz, a junior. “My favorite part of the project was tracing my hand [on the back of the portrait] so that the kid could put his hand on mine.”
​The artists devoted more than a month to each portrait, building on drafts and “detail studies” to ensure a life-like rendering in watercolor, acrylic paint, or colored pencil. The central challenge, said senior Marquita Hood, was “creating a skin color that matched closely with the child, so the child would feel more connected to the portrait.”

Portrait of N Seng by Alexia Fragoso Nava​It was Rubidoux’s first time taking part in the program thanks to a Memory Project grant for high schools in California. Mrs. Stewart hopes to participate again next year, perhaps through community support. She said the program “demonstrated the incredible power [students] have to make a positive impact all the way across the globe.”
A video by The Memory Project captured the young students’ delight and gratitude upon receiving their handcrafted portraits. The gifts are referred to as “a message of friendship from the outside world during a challenging moment in history.”
Rev. Elisha Satvinder, co-founder of the Dignity for Children Foundation, praised the “amazing talent and skill” of the artists, adding: “You are going to do amazing things for humanity.”

For more information about the organizations featured in this story, please visit their websites:
The Memory Project:​
The Dignity for Children Foundation:​

Artist credit, from top to bottom: ​Amy Yang, Jayden Hermosillo, Alexia Fragoso Nava​