Students Process Displacement Through Interdisciplinary Arts

Written by Nick Konozik, Arts in Schools Program Directer

High school is hard enough. For refugee students coming to America, their journey is an exponential climb; most struggle silently with cultural, linguistic, and social barriers. often with unresolved trauma and loss of family. And how does the US system welcome them? With a high school education system focused solely on academic proficiency. These already vulnerable students can so easily fall between the cracks, and yet, high school is still an essential developmental stage. 

 ARTogether’s “Arts in Schools” program seeks to provide spaces where refugee students feel safe to express themselves, have fun, and make friends. What began as a humble endeavor four years ago with a music production class, has now blossomed into an arts education initiative encompassing visual art, dance, and music. 

Olivia Eng, a teaching artist whose dedication and passion have become instrumental in the expansion and success of the “Arts in Schools” program. Olivia started teaching and providing support this last fall 2023 at Oakland International High School and Fremont High School – two of the largest newcomer populations in Oakland. She is not just a teacher; she’s a mentor and a source of inspiration.  

“With difficult emotions and big challenges, everyone processes differently. Some are prone to verbalize, some find relief through movement, others through visual art. It is important to offer different modalities”
– Olivia

As a professional artist herself, with a background in both visual arts and dance, Olivia brings a unique blend of creativity and empathy to her work. Each week, she steps into the classroom, ready to embark on a journey of discovery with her students. Through her gentle guidance and unwavering support, she designs both dance and multidisciplinary art activities that energize the students. 

“Engaging with art making can be a way for students to stay connected to their own culture, traditions, and relationships through the way they explore artistic concepts.”
– Olivia 

When students arrive in America, they are thrown into a challenging environment that lacks support. Simple art projects, songs, or dances rooted in their experience, help students value who they are and sends a very strong message: here in America, we can share our cultures and grow and celebrate them. It is important to model multicultural ideas in any classroom. For newcomer classrooms especially, these are their first cues of self acceptance and belonging in their new home. Our take? It’s actually quite simple to affect their lives in a positive way. 

“I thank God that they allowed me to come here to play. My family is not here. I like music and I feel that music changes me … and brings me happiness.”
Carlos 9th grade

“It is comforting to learn new things with the melodies. Music allows you to escape instead of joining a gang and other things.”
Gia 11th grade 

ARTogether is deeply grateful to our community partners who have been essential in building attendance, providing space, and helping us to maintain and strengthen our programming. 

Aligned with our partners, ARTogether has one true message for newcomer youth regardless of the medium: we see you, we care about you, and you belong here.









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