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The virtual 'village': Refugee inclusion still a priority in Durham

Mick Schulte, 39, is a freelance photographer and writer from Minnesota, and she has been living in N.C. for the last 11 years. Just over a year ago, Schulte began a project with the World Relief Immigration Center, located in the John O'Daniel Exchange building at 801 Gilbert Street in Durham. "I was an ESL teacher, and I've always had a heart for immigrants and refugees," Schulte said. She has been taking portraits of children and documenting some of the Center's events in hopes of highlighting refugees in the community. Schulte mentioned her dissatisfaction with the current presidential administration and said that she wants to show refugees and immigrants that "there are still people that want to make their lives easier. Not only assist them, but become friends with them."

As COVID-19 continues to redefine communities, refugees and immigrants in the Triangle face barriers to becoming a part of the changing narrative. 

Physically, the pandemic has posed challenges to refugee integration efforts through quarantines and closures. Local organizations and advocates often support refugee and immigrant integration initiatives, and they have had to get creative at a time when community gatherings are rare and people feel safer with those they are close with.

“When they say it takes a village to raise a child — it takes a village to make everyone part of that village,” Sashi Rayasam, director of K-12 ESL Services for Durham Public Schools, said. “That’s the collectivism we’ve got to embrace.”

Rayasam serves as an advocate for a photo documentary project, called The Refuge Collective, that aims to address, in part, some of the integration challenges posed by the pandemic.

A creation of Durham-based photographer Mick Schulte, The Refuge Collective is a yearlong photographic documentary that tells the stories of refugees and immigrants in Durham. 

Schulte partnered with World Relief Durham, a local organization that works to support refugees, to conceptualize and begin the project in fall 2019. However, the COVID-19 pandemic upended many of Schulte’s plans. 

“At first, we didn't know if that meant, ‘Just push pause on the project,’” she said. “But we didn't. We just kind of said, ‘You know, they're dealing with this just as much as all of us are.’”

It became one of Schulte’s goals to document the ways refugee communities are experiencing the pandemic. Unable to have a gallery showing as originally planned, Schulte took the project online, a move that she said may further local communities’ acceptance of refugees. 

“Because of COVID, so many of us are stuck within our own lives without seeing a different perspective,” she said. “What I hope having this online does, is allow people to see people who don't look like them, don't think like them — but also to see them in their daily lives, and how they really are just the same as all of us.”

Jose Cardoza, an advocate for The Refuge Collective along with Rayasam, works with refugee and immigrant communities as assistant principal at Jordan High School in Durham.

“My hope is that (Schulte’s) project is able to move the needle in terms of how we — immigrants or refugees — are perceived,” he said. 

Cardoza, who is from El Salvador, said it is not easy to leave everything behind for a new country.

“We leave our families, we leave our friends, we leave our weather, we leave our people, we leave our traditions,” he said. “We don't want to leave — inside, we wish we could stay where we are from. But we are obligated, we are forced to leave our beautiful countries, our beautiful people and traditions.”

He said he believes addressing barriers to integration depends on public awareness of refugee stories. 

Rayasam said she prefers to be seen as a conduit for refugees and their stories and potential.

“Their voices — and their stories in their voices — is what counts,” she said.

Schulte’s photos are supported by short captions to give context to the image, but largely, the project lets the images and their subjects do the storytelling.

The Refuge Collective, including Rayasam and Cardoza, aims to continue the work of community integration for refugees and immigrants, even as a pandemic shifts these efforts online. 

“I see positive changes going forward. If we use the resources that we have, and we unite, I think that we will make a change,” Cardoza said. “We don't want them to be separate, we want them to be integrated into our society — and it's our responsibility.”


@DTHCityState | 

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