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Moving Words: Art Project Captures Stories Of Houston’s Immigrants and Refugees

Houston receives more refugees than any other city in America, but many of them struggle to find a sense of belonging after relocating. One group is using art to help them capture the stories of their migration.

 


 

Zainab Mabizari is a little nervous as she presents her artwork to her family. She loves to write, but this is her first time pairing it with photography. In this series, Mabizari took pictures around her childhood home, capturing its transformation since her parents immigrated from Algeria over 20 years ago.

Mabizari is part of Moving Words: A Refugee and Immigrant Narrative Project. The Houston-based group uses art to explore the idea of what home means. Participants recently showcased their work at the Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center in Southwest Houston. Dozens of photos, poems and essays lined the walls as visitors conversed in a range of international tongues. As a first-generation American, Mabizari says the project helped her understand her parents’ immigrant experience.

“It’s something that I’ve never really noticed before because my mother tries to keep those things hidden from us, her struggles, her sacrifices,” she said. “When I told her about this project and she started opening up to me about these stories, it’s eye-opening.”

Moving Words was launched by college students Jonathan Goh and Michelle Kiang. Goh says they were inspired by their own heritage. His father is from Singapore, and his mother is a refugee from Cambodia. Goh says he and Kiang wanted to establish a creative outlet for people of immigrant backgrounds.

“[We wanted to provide] avenues for people to kind of go back and have intergenerational dialogue with their parents or even with siblings or with friends in their community, and really just reflect more on how they grew up,” he said.

Kiang moved to Houston from Venezuela when she was 8 years old. She says getting together with immigrants from all over the world led to some powerful discussions.

“A lot of the people came to me saying ‘I’ve never had an opportunity to talk about this or think about this, and you’ve opened up this entire world,’” she said. “Another person said that hearing other people’s experiences validates their own, so it makes their own feelings feel more real.”

Kiang says many of the participants are people she knows — friends, classmates, and other acquaintances, but she says she wants to reach out more immigrants and refugees and give them a chance to share their narratives.

“We hope to communicate that everyone’s immigration story or refugee story is completely different, but there are still common threads in between, and that people can define home in a lot of different ways, and that they’re all valid,” Kiang said.

So what have participants like Mabizari taken away from the project?

“Home is where my stories are,” Mabizari said. “So whether it means being here in America, whether it means being in Algeria, it’s combining all the stories I’ve ever heard and really just finding my home in them.”

She says the Moving Words stories have made her idea of home even richer.

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Tomeka Weatherspoon

Tomeka Weatherspoon

Producer

Tomeka Weatherspoon is an Emmy-award winning producer. She produces segments, the weekly television program Arts InSight, the short film showcase The Territory and a forthcoming digital series on innovation. Originally from the Midwest, Tomeka studied convergence journalism from the world’s first journalism school at the University of Missouri. She has...

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