The visual stories that comprise the Forced to Flee project bear evocative witness to the memories, struggles, and dreams of young people whose lives have been upturned by conflict and persecution in Burma/Myanmar. They illustrate that emotions conveyed and evoked by a single narrative image can tell a story of a thousand words, open hearts, and build bridges of understanding.
“Refugee youth who participate in the visual storytelling workshops quickly realize that they aren’t simply victims. They are survivors and witnesses whose life stories deserve—and need—to be heard,” says Erika Berg in reference to the workshops for youth from Burma that she began facilitating in 2011 with the help of her husband, their daughter, and numerous volunteers.
Berg has big plans for many of the poignant and heartrending depictions that have resulted from the workshops. Forced to Flee: Visual Stories by Refugee Youth from Burma is, in Berg’s words, “a book of haunting, humbling, and awe-inspiring ‘visual stories’ painted about and by refugee youth from Burma.”
Following her 24 years of experience as a publisher, the idea of sharing the visual stories in book form was intuitive for Berg. “Writing the captions and contextual material for the Seattle Art Museum exhibit in 2012 jumpstarted my efforts to produce a book.”
Forced to Flee is currently in its Kickstarter phase, through which Berg hopes to raise $12,000 to fund production of the book and the development of a companion website featuring educational and advocacy resources. If the Kickstarter campaign is successful, she has committed 100 percent of the royalties from the sale of the book to interethnic youth groups working to promote peaceful coexistence in conflict-ridden regions of Burma.
Berg, who is based in Seattle, Washington, has long been driven to support youth who, often without warning, have had to leave behind life as they’ve known it due to outbreaks of violent conflict or ethnic, religious, and/or political persecution in their native land.
In 2006, Berg and her then-five-year-old daughter Seki volunteered for a month in the remote mountainside town of Dharamsala, India, in support of refugee children who had fled Tibet on foot over the Himalayas. The mother-daughter duo organized art projects on the roof of Dharamsala’s Tibetan Refugee Reception Center where newly arrived refugee children lived until assigned to a boarding school in India. “That is where I discovered the power of visual stories,” recalls Berg.
Upon returning to Seattle, she sought new ways to support the artistic expression of refugee youth.
Berg’s engagement in Burma’s democracy movement was sparked a year later during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, when she and Seki found themselves riveted by news footage of tens of thousands of Buddhist monks streaming through the streets of Rangoon in peaceful protest of the government’s overnight withdrawal of fuel subsidies.
In early 2009, Berg began working for a refugee/asylee youth foster care program in Seattle. Her role was to find potential foster parents for refugee/asylee youth who had been discovered without adult caretakers abroad or in the U.S. A large percentage of the children had fled civil war in Burma.
Berg traveled with Seki and husband Daniel to the Thai border town of Mae Sot two years later to facilitate the first of her visual storytelling workshops with refugee youth living along the Thai-Burma border. The workshops offered the children a means—through the universally understood language of narrative art—to share their experiences of forced displacement from their homes and their country.
“When we told them we needed their help, they were quite intrigued. [It was] as if it had never occurred to them that their stories might matter to others,” said Berg.
Since Mae Sot, Berg has helped hundreds more refugee youth from Burma’s numerous ethnic groups discover that their stories do matter and can have an impact. More than 1,000 distinct narratives have resulted from the 40-plus workshops she has facilitated.
In 2012, Berg held workshops in India’s remote northeastern Mizoram State, a region that serves as refuge for about 100,000 ethnic Chin who have fled religious persecution and extreme poverty across the India-Burma border, and in the slums of New Delhi, where the first wave of stateless Rohingya Muslims had recently arrived from Burma’s Arakan State following a rash of violence between Buddhists and Muslims.
The following year, Berg and her family were able to travel to Burma itself for the first time. Disturbed by a recent spread of communal violence, they led a series of interfaith visual storytelling workshops in Rangoon and Mandalay designed to promote peaceful coexistence among the country’s diverse ethnic and religious groups. Paintings from these workshops are now featured in the “Bridging Divides” section of Forced to Flee.
Children who participate in Berg’s workshops, armed with pigment, paintbrushes, and irrepressible hope, are educating others about the cruelty and injustices inflicted on countless people in Burma—especially in ethnic areas—by their own government and the national army. In the process, they are advocating for a more just and inclusive peace in Burma. “Unlike human rights reports, which tend to politicize issues and widen divides, the youths’ visual stories humanize the issues to bridge and heal divides,” says Berg.
Workshop participants are also given a chance to reflect on the extraordinary challenges they have overcome as refugees. Says Berg, “Sharing their memories and dreams with one another and the outside world can be healing and empowering.”
In coordinating a typical workshop, Berg first recruits a workshop host-translator, a refugee community leader familiar to youth in the area. Once a venue has been selected, the host recruits 20–30 youth. “Refugee hosts understand that this is an opportunity to increase awareness of the challenges and aspirations of refugees and promote greater compassion—and global support—for those who have been forced to flee their homeland.”
On some occasions, the youth in Berg’s workshops have been able to see for themselves how impactful their visual stories can be. In addition to her 2012 exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum, Berg has showcased other exhibits in the city at which local workshop participants have been able to witness viewers’ reactions to their paintings firsthand.
“Refugee youth in the greater Seattle area have been tickled to tears that anyone would care about, let alone be moved by, their stories,” said Berg, who this past June curated an exhibit in honor of World Refugee Day, combining visual stories by refugee youth from Burma with artwork by youth from Bhutan, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, and numerous other countries.
While funding has presented considerable challenges (to date, all workshop and travel costs have been paid for out of her family’s pocket), Berg, who recently received a grant to facilitate more workshops with refugee and migrant youth in the greater Seattle area, has every intention of continuing to offer the workshops. These days she is applying for additional grants that, if secured, would enable her to return to Burma to facilitate workshops in internally displaced person (IDP) camps in Kachin and Arakan States.
“I would also like to tour an exhibit of the visual stories inside Burma. At each exhibit venue, in areas that have experienced conflict, I would offer a workshop and then incorporate the most powerful pieces to come out of the workshop into the exhibit, enabling the exhibit to grow organically from venue to venue,” says Berg.
A lot depends upon Berg’s ability to raise sufficient funds to publish Forced to Flee through the Kickstarter campaign. “When your number-one ally is impoverished refugees, your project needs all of the outside help it can get!”
Since the dawn of her visual storytelling workshops, Berg has lived in perpetual awe of those who have survived devastating losses and heartache, yet somehow manage to remain hopeful and determined—even grateful.
“No one has taught, humbled, or inspired me more than refugees,” she says. “I have been repeatedly struck by how youth who have the least, who have reached refuge the most recently, are the most likely to dream of benefits to the whole of humanity rather than to just themselves or their family.”
And that is one powerful picture.
article by Kristen Elde, Burma Study Center
A visual storytelling workshop held in the roadside home of a teacher, which also doubled as a childcare center, on the Thai-Burma border.