Refugee Narratives: Ten Stories of Cambodian Refugees

Julie Wroblewski Tourtillotte: Artist Statement

My screen printed and hand cut fabrics in this exhibition continue a focus in my art practice over the past fifteen years on the patterns and effects of climate change. This new series evolved from work with endangered and invasive plant and insect species and has merged with an interest in the recent migrations of people globally. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that there were 70.8 million displaced persons worldwide in 2019. These figures likely do not account for all of the people driven from their homes due to climate insecurity, extreme weather, and degradation of their local ecosystems such as the migrants heading north from hard hit areas in Central America (Hallett). Drought, repeated crop failures, lack of clean water, hurricanes, floods, and the subsequent violence in their homelands give them no choice but to flee. These unofficial climate “refugees” lack international protections and are described in pejorative terms as “invasions” by those from whom they seek shelter. Rather than offer refuge, the first world countries most responsible for climate change instead close their borders thereby increasing the perils for these vulnerable men, women and children. 

The crisis often posed by non-native, invasive plants and insects is the loss of biodiversity. Plants like garlic mustard crowd out indigenous species and insects like the ash borer beetle decimate the majority of our ash trees. I believe the threat is reversed when our country shuns immigrants and stokes unfounded fears by misrepresenting these refugees as “criminals” or “terrorists”. The diversity of people we welcome bring their talents, dreams, ambition, and often their hard labor to enrich our country culturally and economically. 

Like the majority of citizens in this country, my ancestors traveled from foreign lands to the United States to escape oppression, war and hunger and seek freedom and economic opportunity. Born in 1892, my paternal grandfather left western Poland with his brothers at a young age (his mother feared her sons would be conscripted in the German army) and over time made his way to South Bend for employment at the Studebaker factory. I never met him, but I grew up in the west-side, working-class neighborhood where he settled. Five generations later I look at my nieces, nephews, and great-nephews with roots in Eastern and Western Europe, Mexico, China and Africa and know that our story is a common one in this great melting pot of a nation. I hope my art work can foster broader understanding and empathy for today’s immigrants and refugees. 

Hallett, Miranda Cady. "How Climate Change is Driving Emigration from Central America." PBS Newshour Weekend, September 8, 2019.

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