REFUGE, a project by Claire Calvo, tells the stories of ten refugee children resettling in Calvo’s hometown of Lancaster, PA. As a city which has been dubbed “America’s Refugee Capital,” it takes in 20x more refugees per capita than any other city in the US.

For REFUGE, Calvo partnered with Church World Service to photograph and interview families from Syria, Somalia and Ethiopia. She then used those photos (taken on an iPhone and lit by flashlight) as a reference to draw portraits in charcoal.

The pieces (10 in total) have been touring around the country and will be sold via online auction, with a portion of the proceeds will go directly to the families who participated. We asked the artist and activist for insight on life in Lancaster and her experience with refugees in America.

What is a typical day like for you in Lancaster? 

I’ve been working on REFUGE for most of my time here in Lancaster. I grew up here, moved to NYC for nine years, and just came back in September. My days here now, while working on the exhibit, usually start around 8am – I get up, spend some time answering emails and reaching out to press. I’ve been doing all of the PR for this myself – grassroots. I usually spend the afternoons drawing. While I was still meeting families, evening were dedicated to that.

In what ways do you feel personally connected to the refugee crisis? 

My family has been actively involved in helping refugees since I was 6. We hosted a Bosnian family in 1995, a Turkish family in the early 2000s and more recently, my mom has helped give rides and provide furniture to local Syrian refugee families.

Have you seen a difference in the refugee and larger Lancaster community since Trump’s election? 

The proverbial noose tightened after Trump’s first attempt to pass the Muslim ban. Local refugee resettlement organizations have far fewer families and a significantly lower budget.

After spending intimate time with these humans, what do you find is the most common misconception America has about refugees? 

That they are living off resources or handouts provided by American tax-payers and the government. The absolute opposite is true. The families I’ve met have left their lives behind, spent up to two years going through the asylum process and are determined to make a better life for themselves here. They often support spouses and many children on a single minimum-wage income. Achieving that is impossible without working tirelessly. Additionally, they arrive with debt. Their flights are loans, which they must pay back.

How did your personal perspective change pre and post drawing? 

Meeting the families brought the stories I’ve read and seen to life, though it’s just a piece in understanding the broader picture. I spent time teaching ESL classes, where I really saw the challenges refugees face in America first-hand.

How familiar are you with Church World Service? 

Church World Service made this project possible – they are the organization through which all of the refugees I’ve drawn resettled. They have been incredibly supportive and helpful – they work tirelessly and selflessly to help those most in need.

I am very interested in the intersection of religious organizations and victims seeking refuge.

Many families who come to Lancaster are sponsored and supported by local churches. I’m not religious, but it’s my impression that faith-based organizations feel it is their moral responsibility to help those in need.

*Images courtesy of Claire Calvo.