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In our eyes

A photography exhibit became the springboard for a major General Wolfe School project on refugees and their new lives in Canada.

The school recently hosted a touring version of a newcomer photo exhibition in the school's library. In Our Eyes: The PhotoVoice Project was the result of a partnership between the Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties, the Canadian Muslim Women's Institute and From Here and Away.

Newcomers and refugee participants from Syria and Iraq were given disposable cameras and were asked to take photos that told their story.  

After the resulting exhibit appeared at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, it caught the attention of newcomer/English-as-an-additional language teacher Anita Riedl, who thought students at the highly multicultural school would find a connection to the photos. Working with General Wolfe's Language Arts teachers Jo-Ann Machado and Caroline Fisher, the three were able to come up with a major project for the school.

"We developed a school-wide lesson that all of our Language Arts teachers took and used to teach about refugees in the classrooms," Ms. Riedl said. "Every class did something different with it. We have a school where diversity is the norm. We have students from war-affected backgrounds and many newcomers, so this was another way to make connections and develop a further understanding of this particular group of people."

Students were able to visit the photo exhibit in their school library and write down their own impressions.

"One of the main reasons for using photographs is that many of the refugees can't communicate well in English yet," said teacher Mario Cueto. "So students are looking at these photographs and thinking about what they are trying to say."

Grade 7 student Winter Armstrong chose to write about a picture that detailed the ceiling of Winnipeg's Via Rail Station at The Forks.

"That photo inspired me to write about it," she said. "I thought that maybe that was how they first came to Winnipeg, and that was the first thing they saw."

General Wolfe student Alemayo Yirdaw, an Ethiopian student who came to Canada via Sudan, was drawn to a photo of four Muslim friends.

"I think I picked that photo because it reminded me of being with my friends in Ethiopia," Alemayo said.

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As a culmination to the project, the school united to create a giant mosaic map of Manitoba that featured a puzzle piece from each class; students decorated each piece with poems, thoughts and images about what it meant to them to be a new Canadian.

The finished mural currently hangs in the school's front foyer.

"The project was a good way for all of our students to be engaged to talk and think about refugees and who they are," Ms. Riedl said. "They are not just refugees, they are new friends that have come to Canada. They are our neighbours and classmates now."

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