A 9-year-old girl rummaged through a plastic container of crayons Friday morning and pulled out the purple one she needed for the house she was drawing. Moments later, she proudly taped the drawing to the wall of the arts-and-crafts room at the former Benedictine Monastery in midtown Tucson.
Her drawing is now part of the “galería de los niños,” or gallery of drawings made by young asylum seekers from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Brazil and other countries.
A few minutes later, another beaming little girl taped her drawing to the wall, after a volunteer coached her through the spelling of her home country, H-O-N-D-U-R-A-S.
Since January, thousands of children have spent a few days at the former monastery. Their drawings covered the walls of the arts-and-crafts room, poured out into the hallway, wrapped around pillars in the chapel, and spilled into a room full of donated clothes.
Now, the public has the chance to see more than 250 of those drawings and get a personal view of what it’s like for a child to leave their home and their pets, journey with their parents through foreign countries, and find themselves in Tucson.
The “Art of Asylum at the Monastery” exhibit opened Friday evening at the Ward 6 office of Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik at 3202 E. First St. The exhibit runs until Aug. 31 and is free to the public. It is sponsored by Casa Alitas, a program of Catholic Community Services that runs the efforts at the former monastery, and the Arts Foundation for Tucson and Southern Arizona.
The children often are fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries. They stay at the former monastery with their parents for a few days and then head to cities where other family members or sponsors await.
Rather than take the drawings with them, “mostly, the kids really want to put it up on the wall. That’s like the cat’s meow,” Valarie Lee James, arts and activities coordinator for Casa Alitas, said Friday morning. “It just makes them really proud. Their story joins all these others.”
The children had free rein to choose what to draw, but volunteers encouraged them to “draw what you love,” said James, who is co-curating the exhibit with Antonia Gallegos.
In a drawing dated April 13, a detailed black-and-white sketch showed a person sitting at the end of a dock with a fishing pole in their hands. The lake in Jutiapa, Guatemala spreads out in front of a volcano as a flock of birds fly overhead.
Other kids drew colorful plants, green hills and blue water, as well as roads, houses, schools, and the former monastery itself. The green feathers and red chest of the quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala, appear in many drawings, as do hearts with wings and butterflies.
Kozachik said the drawings show the “human side of this whole issue” and “really reflect their story, what they’ve gone through and what they’re going through.”
The drawings show “unvarnished” emotions, ranging from grief to love, as only little kids can, he said.
The act of drawing often had a remarkable impact on the children, James said.
“You can see them change, their breathing changes, they get really relaxed,” she said.
But the exhibit is not “all hearts and flowers,” James said. “This is how people take something broken and turn it into something beautiful.”
In May, a Guatemalan boy drew a group of people walking through cactus to a fence. Beyond the fence, a gate stood partly open and three people walked toward the gate holding hands. On the other side of the gate, skyscrapers filled the entire horizon.
In another similar drawing by the boy, he wrote that God never abandoned his family on their journey, but others were less fortunate, adding “The dream of many fallen, tortured, kidnapped, may they rest in peace.”
“These eyes, they see it all,” James said of a 15-year-old boy’s drawing she found in the family room at the former monastery.
Those drawings could be used to make the next big shelter in Tucson more welcoming to asylum seekers, James said.
So far, the most likely replacement for the former monastery, which is closing at the end of July so the owner can turn it into housing and retail space, are unused buildings at the county’s juvenile detention center. Local officials this week also floated the idea of using two former schools.
Drawings by asylum-seeking children made headlines last week when the American Academy of Pediatrics released photos of drawings made at a Catholic Charities center in McAllen, Texas after the children were released from Border Patrol custody, NBC News reported July 3.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which documents the “complex and complicated history of the United States,” is exploring the idea of including the drawings from Texas in the museum’s collection, NPR reported July 9.