Quilting to Speak: Boise Refugees / Non-Refugees Stitch Quilt, Weave New Relationships 

click to enlarge Students participated in the "Quit to Speak" workshop June 29 through July 3. - SHANNON HELLER
  • Shannon Heller
  • Students participated in the "Quit to Speak" workshop June 29 through July 3.
The word “refugee” tends to bring up thoughts of hardship and endurance, sometimes waiting years before rescue from war-torn corners of the globe. And through much of the 21st century, refugees have continued to become a regular fixture in Boise. Using that as a backdrop, Boise State Professor Dr. Reshmi Mukherjee decided to use what the university calls an "Intensive Semester Learning Experience" class to examine the perception of refugees, particularly for future generations.

“We have an ethical responsibility to treat refugees like people instead of like refugees,” Clinton Leech, a Boise State student in Mukherjee’s class, said about the treatment of refugees. “The word [refugee] has some negative connotations… we need to think more about what we can do for them and less about what they can do for us.”

The summer semester class was combined with a five-day quilting workshop, in which Mukherjee and her students chronicled the relationships between refugee and non-refugee children,ages 12-15, who agreed to participate in five days of patchwork quilting.  Mukherjee prefers to call the children “natural born Americans” and "ew Americans”.

“We weren’t really looking for anything to work or not work,” said Mukherjee, a faculty member in Boise State's English department and Gender Studies program.. “It’s hard to make a friend in five days. We were hoping more to create an understanding and communication between the two groups.”

For the workshop, 12-16-year-old were put into pairs consisting of one natural born American child and one new American child. The couples were then given an assignment to make a total of three quilt squares: one for each child in the partnership, and one that they worked on together. The quilt squares were then put together on the final day to form one large quilt. They also were given the task of making journals describing their experience quilting and with their partner. The workshop has been filmed and is being made into a documentary.

Mukherjee said she has plans to make "quilting as communication" a continuous program. For example, the Nampa School District has already made offers for her to have a similar program at their schools.

“[The children] have been journaling about each other, and their ideas and perceptions of the other have definitely developed,” Kyle McCallum, another Boise State student, said of the experience. “Everything moves quickly for them... They get along now.”

Mukherjee said she got the idea for quilting as a mean of nonverbal communication through her own experiences working with anti-human trafficking organizations while in India, but was mostly inspired by a documentary she had previously watched involving similar topics.

“The whole idea is to see if [the children] can make space for each other,” Mukherjee said. “It’s really metaphoric.”

The finished documentary and quilt are expected to be unveiled to the public in October.


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