All grades at Harrison Middle School in Yarmouth are participating in a project to raise awareness of the global refugee crisis. From left are members of the school’s Civil Rights Team, Ingrid Isaro, Fionna Moran and Maddie Fleming. Kate Irish Collins / The Forecaster

YARMOUTH — With fabric, colored thread and sewing needles, students at Harrison Middle School are drawing attention to the global refugee crisis while also learning more about the issues facing this vulnerable group.

Students in grades 5-8 are creating between 25 and 30 panels this spring that will be added to a “striking fiber arts display” called 25 Million Stitches. The public art project is designed as a hands-on way “for us to engage with this crisis instead of ignoring it,” according to the project website.

More than 1,400 participants from 44 states and several countries are involved in the 25 Million Stitches project, organizers said. Once all the panels are received, they’ll be installed at the Verge Center for the Arts in Sacramento, California, in mid-June, and may travel across the U.S. and the world over the next couple of years.

Harrison Middle School students on March 2 began working on panels that will become part of a much bigger fiber arts installation meant to highlight the refugee crisis. From left are Claire Brown, Karoline Tompkins and Fiona John. Contributed

The project got its name from the 25 million people in the world who’ve fled their homeland “as a consequence of genocide, war, poverty, natural disasters, targeted violence, and other grave threats” over the past several years, according to the 25 Million Stitches website.

To kick off the project at Harrison Middle earlier this month, Abdi Nor Iftin, a former refugee from Somalia who lives in Yarmouth and wrote the book “Call Me American,” spoke with seventh graders about his personal experiences.

Iftin was invited by Justine Carlisle, the director of Partners in Education for the Yarmouth schools. She said the district is focused on developing intercultural competence and the 25 Million Stitches project seemed like “a wonderful opportunity to discuss and learn about the experiences of refugees.”

Abdi Nor Iftin, a former refugee from Somalia who lives in Yarmouth and wrote the book, “Call Me American,” spoke Feb. 28 with seventh-graders at Harrison Middle School about his personal experiences. Contributed

Carlisle said having Iftin speak about his “powerful story of resilience and survival” was also a good way for students to more “fully comprehend the struggles that refugees encounter.”

Iftin said Feb. 28 that the global refugee count is now up to 26 million and told students 20 people somewhere in the world are displaced every minute.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency website, “we are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record.”

Iftin told Yarmouth students that only about 1% of all refugees, who are not the same as asylum-seekers or immigrants, become safely resettled. Among those fleeing their homes, only about half ever receive an official refugee designation, which provides special status as provided by a 1951 UN Convention.

Among his many difficulties in finally becoming an American citizen, Iftin said, he doesn’t know the date he was born. So he picked June 20, which is World Refugee Day, which has special meaning to him.

“I was born under a tree, which is a good place to be born, but in my culture birthdays are not celebrated or even recorded,” he said. “It’s a strange thing to get to choose your own birthday.”

Iftin told students that refugees go through “many, many checks and screenings” before ever being allowed into the U.S. and the whole process can often take more than two years. He said in 2019, the top three countries of origin for refugees allowed into the U.S. were the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma and Ukraine.

Fionna Moran, 13, an eighth-grader and member of the Civil Rights Team at Harrison Middle, said prior to the 25 Million Stitches project she didn’t know much about refugees or how many there are worldwide. She said it would be “really scary to have to pack up and leave and not know how long you’d be gone or where you were going.”

Maddie Fleming, 12, is in seventh grade and also a member of the Civil Rights Team. She agreed with Moran and said it’s important to understand the distinction between a refugee and a migrant. “A refugee,” she said, ” has to leave because there’s some issue or danger.”

While Ingrid Isaro, 14, an eighth-grader and another member of the Civil Rights Team, doesn’t know what it’s like to be a refugee personally, several members of her family, including a grandmother and a couple of aunts, recently fled from the Congo.

“If I had to run and leave (everything) behind, I can’t even imagine how I’d feel,” she said.

Fleming hopes through the 25 Million Stitches project “more people will learn about refugees and maybe do something.”

Isaro said hearing about the refugee crisis has helped her to be more grateful. “There’s so many people who don’t have what we have” here in Yarmouth, she said.

All three girls said they might be hesitant to take a refugee into their own home, but Isaro also said it’s important for people to “show compassion, because if we don’t take action now, it might be too late later.”

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