Nearly two years ago now, I saw an image of Alan Kurdi in his little red tee-shirt and his blue shorts lying face down on a beach. The image of that Syrian child made me weep. Somehow all the statistics and news reports of millions and millions of refugees had an image and it was brutal. But I could not look away and instead it propelled me toward the volunteer work I do today with numerous recently resettled refugees in Greater Boston and Lowell.
They have come so far and braved so much. They are fearless and funny and now many I call, friends. But my work with refugees has always been separate from my work as a costume designer. While we’ve shared meals and laughs and afternoons, the worlds of my work–both paid and unpaid–had remained apart until recently.
Last month I received a request to create a costume for a wearable arts show in Gloucester, MA. The request came from Jewelry Designer Sonja Gronstad whose work is inspired by the sea… by objects found along the shore in particular. The more we talked and the more she showed me seaweed that she was casting silver, the more a creation made of seaweed came in to view. But the garment also had to showcase and not overpower her delicate jewelry. So I envisioned and created a bustle made of three types of seaweed. (Sonja was the master-mind behind dipping it in rubber and spraying it with silver!)
But who to wear it? The answer to me was so obvious, someone who had braved oceans to be in America. Someone beautiful and strong, but maybe a little vulnerable too. Someone like my friend Sandra Kalambayi. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, she and her family had fled her native country after her father was killed. They ended up in Uganda and in 2016 were relocated to Lowell, MA. She was the perfect choice for this unique piece of wearable art.
I remember when I first decided to volunteer with refugees, filling out the volunteer application… Do I fluently speak another language? No. Have I worked with refugees before? No. Have I worked in a third world country? No. What I didn’t know then is that those questions didn’t really matter. What mattered was, Can you be open minded? Can you listen and help? And I guess, can you sew with seaweed and guide a nervous model? On that day, how could I ever have imagined how my worlds would collide? And on a beach no less. The same place that compelled me to volunteer in the first place.