The Columbus Crossing Borders Project Examines Refugee Experience via the Arts

There are 65 million displaced people in this world fleeing war, terror and persecution.  These are families being forced from their homes:   mothers, fathers, students,, lawyers, working class, middle class, store clerks and physicians — all walks of life seeking  the same safety that we all want and deserve.

Yet, what are the chances today’s refugees will be welcomed  into any new country with open arms?

In the US, we hear anti-immigration sentiments becoming more vocal. We see misunderstanding, intolerance, discrimination and racism dividing our communities.  Indeed, even before the recent travel bans and executive orders, targeting refugees and promoting fear of them, served to benefit a key political platform.

On the morning of November 9, last year, as I was watching TV, trying to process the results of the election, I received word that my father had died.   The void felt too complete — crushing —  with the helpless sense that I had lost my dad and my country at the same time.   But then something inside of me said don’t give in.

The Columbus Crossing Borders Project was born that day.

I am an artist.  So my instinct was to gather fellow artists, including a film crew, to utilize art as a means of instigating critical thinking, understanding and compassion for the refugees in our world.  In this way, The Columbus Crossing Borders Project became a travelling art exhibit and a documentary film.

To strengthen our mission, a partnership was formed with the Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) of Columbus, Ohio.  Through this partnership we met with refugees who were willing to share their stories on film — these being the stories to inspire the Columbus Crossing Borders artists.   Responding to these stories, the artists created paintings as tributes.  Then as the exhibit moves from left to right, each painting contains an element that reaches into the painting that follows it.  In other words, these artists were asked  to ‘cross borders’ into each other’s paintings.  They were asked not to be territorial with their work, needing to cooperate in order to resolve challenges that might arise when crossing into someone else’s space.  Perhaps a hand reaches from one painting into another.  Maybe a figure is running from one painting into the next.  In some cases, the connecting factor might be an adjacent sky or a patch of grass.

Regardless of how these artists cross each other’s borders, they have ultimately created spaces that allow their works to overlap and integrate harmoniously.  And throughout the exhibit, as paintings and diversities flow in combined efforts, what emerges is a bigger more beautiful outcome resulting in a cooperative community.

 The Columbus Crossing Borders travelling art exhibit opened in May 2017 at the Columbus Cultural Arts Center to a reception of 400 people.  It will now travel until the end of 2018.  The documentary film, titled “Breathe Free”,  directed by Doug Swift, premieres at The Drexel Theatre in Bexley, Ohio on Thursday, August 10.  This film spotlights the refugees’ stories against the backdrop of the art project inspired by those stories.

Taking this project on the road to a diverse range of demographics and communities supports our goal to get past the toxic discourse that divides people.  We invite those who may not be educated about the plight of refugees, or those who may be unsure about their feelings toward refugees, or those who may harbor suspicion or ill will toward refugees. By providing an up-close,  intimate look into personal human struggle and strength, our audience has the opportunity to observe, integrate and hopefully make a connection.

So we must ask ourselves:  “Will our project be transformative?  Will it make a positive social impact that can help move the public toward compassionate action? ”   When we consider the tremendous amount of work going into it,   we certainly hope so.   However, if even just a fraction of our communities are inspired to let go of personal fear, misunderstanding and intolerance, the effort is worth it.

For more information:

Columbus Crossing Borders website: 

Columbus Crossing Borders Facebook:

Laurie VanBalen is a visual artist from central Ohio. Her career in the arts spans 35 years of commissioned paintings and works in private collections, exhibits, book illustration and graphic design. She is the founder and director of Art Soup Studio, providing creative workshops and programs for schools, libraries and community centers, in addition to classes for all ages in her home studio.



New Americans: Immigrants Ready to Take Their Place as U.S. Citizens


June is Immigrant Heritage Month, and it is a time to celebrate the many cultures represented in our country’s society. While we celebrate the heritage of the millions of people living in the United States, we know that immigration remains to be a hot topic that is constantly being debated. Recently, I’ve noticed the media reporting about the increase in citizenship applications, and that new Americans are eager and excited to vote. As a naturalized citizen myself, I too shared the feelings of eagerness and excitement to be politically engaged after becoming a citizen in 2009. Raising my right hand before a federal judge and reciting my Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America is my proudest moment.

I had wanted to become a citizen in time for the 2008 presidential election. At the time I was a student at Bowling Green State University with a part-time job. The money from that job wasn’t enough to pay for the citizenship application. I had to get a second job in order to save enough to pay for the $700 cost of the citizenship test. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to become a citizen in time to participate in the election that year, but I was very excited to send in my voter registration form immediately after my oath ceremony.

I know that there are millions of other immigrants in this country who want to become citizens, but have a difficult time navigating the process. The bureaucracy involved in this extensive process to becoming an American is confusing and expensive. While there have been many efforts made to improve this process, there have also been many setbacks. Just last week the Supreme Court decided to block President’s Obama’s immigration plan with a 4-4 decision. This decision will have a detrimental impact on families and communities across our nation. By keeping immigration reform in limbo the Supreme Court has placed more uncertainty and fear upon a population who is simply trying to work hard and support their families. As a naturalized citizen, I get to live my American Dream everyday, but I’m disheartened by the fact that many others who are not yet citizens are living an immigration nightmare.

As a naturalized citizen, I believe it is important to celebrate both my heritage and the country that I call home. I am without a doubt proud to be Brazilian by birth, and American by choice. As I listen to the candidates talk about several issues during this election cycle, I will be paying close attention to their plans for fixing our broken immigration system. It is imperative that we elect a president who is knowledgeable on this issue, and who is intelligent and sophisticated enough to know that just building a wall along our Southern boarder is not an appropriate solution. I hope that others will participate in this debate and truly listen to the ideas to fixing this problem because at the end of the day our immigration laws impact all of us.

Editor’s Note: In response to Leo’s post, and in keeping with our mission to provide solutions to issues that our bloggers discuss, we propose the following for our readers to consider: 

                  > Stay informed. Read, watch, listen, and discuss immigration. The more information you pursue, the better equipped you will be to make decisions on the topic.

                  > To more fully understand how immigration impacts families and the consequences of enacted public policies on immigrants and refugees, consider volunteering with a non-profit organization dedicated to serving these populations. In Columbus, there are numerous organizations in which you can volunteer or learn more about immigrants and their families, some of which are CRIS, US Together-Columbus, and World Relief-Columbus.

                  > Contact the Columbus Community Relations Commission. According to their website, the CRC was created to recommend ways and means of initiating and improving city government programs designed to eliminate discrimination or to remove the effects of past discrimination. On Friday, July 8th, the CRC will be hosting a Lunch and Learn Series focusing on immigrants and refugees from 11:00 AM – 1:00 PM at 1111 East Broad Street. More information can be found at

> Advocate: Contact your Congressman or Congresswoman and share your concerns on the country’s immigration system and urge your member to enact legislation. (****okay, this seems lame, but you see what we’re getting at here****)


Leo Almeida is a government relations professional who works and lives in the Columbus area.  Leo moved to Columbus after graduating from Bowling Green State University where he majored in Ethnic Studies and minored in Political Science.  He is currently a policy associate for an environmental non-profit organization.  He is also a community activist who spends most of his free time working with community groups and political campaigns.  Leo serves on the board of trustees for the Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS), which provides numerous services to many immigrants and refugees in Franklin County.  He is also the Chairman of the Franklin County Adelante Democrats, an organization focused on Latino voters and the general Latino community in Central Ohio.

Finding Peace In Columbus, Ohio

When discussing peace and refugee resettlement, it is important to understand that the refugee resettlement program exists because there is a lack of peace in the world. Families from Somalia are fleeing an ongoing civil war; Burmese flee from government persecution; Sudanese flee the genocide in Darfur, and the list continues. The families that Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) serves come from all over the world, yet what is common among all is the persecution they faced in their home countries and their desire to live peaceful lives.

One might believe that for refugees, the United States is a place of redemption, yet the reality is more complex.

Even after resettlement, there are many hurdles families must overcome in order to successfully integrate into the community. After refugees come to the United States, they immediately must acclimate to local culture, begin learning English, navigate public transportation, enroll children in school, secure employment, and begin to repay their travel loans. All this, coupled with culture shock, and the stress of having family still abroad and possibly in danger is taxing for families. CRIS works closely with refugee families as they make this transition and establish themselves in the United States. We bear witness to both the triumphs and the struggles.

Working with families who are survivors of mass violence, we must grapple with the meaning of peace. Is it the absolute absence of war and unrest? Is it some enlightened state of tranquility?

None of these definitions seem complete.

Instead, we must look for peace in the everyday moments. There is peace when a family is reunited at the airport. There is peace on a child’s first day of school. There is peace when a refugee obtains their first American job. There is peace when a refugee becomes a U.S. citizen.

Too often immigrants are seen as a burden on society, people who take, but never give. This simply is not true. Up until recently, we could only speak anecdotally about the economic success of the families CRIS serves. With the release of a new study, The Economic Impact of Refugees in Central Ohio, the greater Columbus community can now appreciate what CRIS staff have known all along. Despite the need for initial assistance, the families we serve soon blossom and thrive.

The narrative of the refugee is not one of victimhood; the families resettled are survivors. They are resilient, even in the face of extreme adversity. They enrich the fabric of Central Ohio and the United States at large. They are excited and proud to be Americans, and the greater community should embrace them as such and help them settle into a life of peace.


Elizabeth Thomas is the AmeriCorp VISTA Community Resource Coordinator for Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) in Columbus, Ohio.