Virtual Art Classes Form a Real Connection

When Kaeya Patel ’22 took a trip to McAllen, Texas, in 2019, the reality of the immigration crisis came into sharp focus.

“I worked at a clinic the Humanitarian Respite Center,” she says. “Even though these migrants had already crossed the border, the quality of living was not very good. People were vying for space, hidden in corners. … They looked very upset, and they were considered the lucky ones because they had crossed the border.”

When Patel returned back to the DC area, she brought her work with her. “I wanted to continue my work and especially help migrants that hadn’t crossed the border,” she says. “And not only did I want to help with the migrant crisis at the U.S. border, but with humanitarian crises all over the world.” So, with two other students she co-founded the Refugee Support and Awareness Club at Sidwell Friends, which works with local organizations to support refugees worldwide; the organization recently furnished an apartment for a refugee family in the area. However, a part of her still wanted that direct connection she experienced during her Texas visit. She found a way to do it through art—twice.

First, Patel taught a virtual art class last summer in conjunction with the Virginia Refugee Student Achievement Project, which provides support to refugee students enrolled in Virginia public schools. “I taught around 15 classes that ranged from drawing a cartoon dog to, for older kids, more advanced techniques,” she says. “I got to know some of the kids really well; it was really enjoyable to hop onto a Zoom and see that they were really excited.”

One virtual class led to another. “I found this organization on Twitter called the Sidewalk School,” she says. “They have camps set up in Mexico because of all the migrants who haven’t crossed the border and now are forced to stay because of the Remain in Mexico policy,” which began under the previous presidential administration and continues today. It requires migrants seeking asylum to stay in Mexico while their cases are examined, rather than cross into the United States, which was historically the standard. “It’s just so dangerous there, and the Sidewalk School gives them shelter, protection, necessities, and education. And I thought, ‘Why not use my love for art to teach and give these kids at least some joy or distraction from the situation they’re in right now?’”

Patel created a virtual arts program and now gives regular classes to migrant children ranging in age from 5 to 12 years old. “I’m not focused a lot on technique, or really furthering their ability,” she says. “You can take whatever liberties you want with art, and that’s really enjoyable for kids who have been cooped up all day—and especially who are stressed, or are overwhelmed by a new country, or just by being in these camps. Art has always been calming for me, and I’m glad to give that experience to these kids.”

It wasn’t just calming for the kids; Patel herself found benefits to teaching. “This summer was kind of tricky—I was worrying about college stuff, studying for the SATs, looking ahead to my senior year,” she says. “But I went into the class one day, and the kids were really excited. I was really happy to see that they enjoyed my company, and they were excited to be there. That really confirmed that I was doing something right and that these kids were actually enjoying the time they had with me, and it was serving its purpose.”

In the end, Patel’s work isn’t about art; it’s about empathy and action: “We don’t realize what it’s like for children to go through this.”

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