Reflections on the Opening of “Refugee is Not My Name”

On Thursday, March 22 Ashley St. Clair and I got to bask in the pay-off of 2 years worth of hard, creative work.  At Lewis Carnegie gallery that night, from 5pm-8pm  over 200 ticket holders streamed through the open air studio to soak up Ashley’s compelling portrait photographs and to read the vignettes I’d written about 15 newly resettled refugees in Austin.  Peter and Lauren at Agave Print printed the huge photograph and writing panels.   Ashley and her husband, Billy Nelson worked tirelessly  with friend Joe Ngo to literally weld the structures that framed the photograph and writing panels.  The results were breathtaking.  The structures are solid and grounded, yet the design gives the viewer a sense of movement and fluidity.
But there was even more creative work going on. Aaron Weiss at One Story Productions created an emotionally rich short tribute film about many of the refugees featured in the exhibit.  People at the exhibit could stand and watch Aaron’s film being shown on one giant wall.
Stav Creative joined our effort in the last couple months and did the “Refugee is Not My Name” logo and all the fine detailed lettering on the walls of the gallery.  Friends from Mission Hills Church donated food, and Lazarus Brewery donated beer.
Friend, Maria Hernandez who runs the non-profit, Vela was a life-saver. She coordinated all the ticketing details and helped all the event volunteers know what to do.
In the end, Ash and I had to laugh.  What started as a two woman project two years ago turned into so much more, with so many other hands reaching in to help hoist, lift and celebrate this undertaking called, “Refugee is Not My Name.”
For me the highlight of the evening was when the refugees featured in the project showed up to the exhibit.  When Ashley and I saw them come in through the doors, it lit up our hearts.  “Friends!” we called out to them.  Because that is what they’ve become to us.  “Come with  me. I want to show the photograph Ashley took of you and the story I’ve written about you.”  Above I’ve added a photo of Grace, a refugee from Myan-Mar.  Photographer, Andrew Bennett snapped a photo of the moment she began reading the story I wrote about her.  It’s a crystallized moment in my mind; I’ll never forget it.
From this point on “Refugee is Not My Name” will become a locally traveling exhibit.  Look for it in various public places around Austin.
The aim of the project continues: to introduce newly resettled refugees to the rest of Austin, through compelling photography and written vignettes about their individuality.  I hope you’ll see our exhibit in person, then run into one of the refugees in person around Austin.  You’ll be able to start a conversation.  You’ll know a new name.  And that’s a great way to make a new friend.