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An Artful Solution Possible for Refugee Program

Six months before Durga Dulal arrived in Philadelphia as a refugee from Bhutan, fire swept through the U.N. camp in the Himalayas where she, her husband, and their four children lived, consuming all they owned.

Five years later, the memory still makes the otherwise sunny woman’s eyes well. Her family, she said, was traumatized – though it fared better than three camp neighbors who, despondent over their losses, committed suicide.

Dulal, 46, was unburdening herself to a social worker at the Philadelphia Refugee Mental Health Collaborative, an innovative program that since 2011 has helped refugees not only heal from past ordeals, but also overcome the culture shock of life in America. With a staff of three social workers and four interpreters, it offers wellness screenings, medical referrals, art therapy, and psychological counseling to more than 400 clients, mostly women.

Amid an international refugee crisis of historic scale, such services would seem ever more essential. But the collaborative, which operates from a South Eighth Street storefront, is facing an uncertain future, too.

Last month, Liberty Lutheran, the Ambler-based social ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and overseer of the collaborative’s $115,000 annual budget, said it would sever its ties with refugee programs in Pennsylvania as of June 30. According to a statement, its focus will shift to health care and assisted living for seniors.

The action was taken “with a heavy heart and after much prayerful deliberation,” Liberty Lutheran said, adding that unpredictable state and local funding, inadequate reimbursements, and lagging private donations necessitated the move.

Funded almost entirely by outside grants, which Liberty Lutheran has managed, the collaborative has only enough money for the next two months.

It is scrambling to find a new administrative partner so it can pursue and receive more grants. Its recent benefactors have included Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS); the Pew Charitable Trusts; the First Hospital Foundation; and the Hilles Fund.

“We certainly would like to see the collaborative continue,” DBHIDS commissioner Arthur Evans Jr. said. “It’s important work.”

The answer could well lie with an unlikely source: the Mural Arts Program, which has been instrumental in using art-based projects – not just wall painting – to engage refugees. The collaborative shares space with Mural Arts’ “Southeast by Southeast,” which “celebrate[s] the diversity and resilience of new immigrants” through “participatory public art.”

On Friday, Evans and his staff met with representatives of Mural Arts and the collaborative, who reached “an agreement in principle,” DBHIDS spokesman Joel Avery said.

Mural Arts wants to step into the role Liberty Lutheran is vacating; an official announcement could come after a follow-up meeting in a month.

“I feel driven . . . to make this work continue,” Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden said.

In connecting with refugees, Avery said, art can be especially valuable, because “traditional approaches” don’t always succeed “in reaching this particular population.”

The collaborative’s current “hope-restoration” activities, such as teaching refugees to visualize themselves alive and succeeding, encourage resilience and pride, supporters say.

“If you don’t address a person’s emotional well-being, we are setting them up for devastating behaviors,” which can lead to psychiatric hospitalizations, said Cathi Tillman, founder of Puerta Abierto, an immigrant-family mental-health group in Kensington, South Philadelphia, and Upper Darby.

Councilman Mark Squilla, in whose district the collaborative is located, said, “It’s very important for the city, as more people migrate here, to get them acclimated.”

To that end, the collaborative offers English classes, helps arrange job interviews and doctor appointments, and assists in other everyday challenges. It runs a similar program for Iraqi and Syrian refugees weekly or biweekly at the Northeast Regional Library on Cottman Avenue near Bustleton Avenue.

In a recent language lesson at the collaborative’s South Philadelphia base, volunteer Margery Miller and Michelle Chung, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student, taught 18 refugees the difference between plural and singular nouns.

“I have three apples. Do you want one apple?”

The instructors handed out a drawing of a typical living room and asked the students to name each item. “This is a couch,” they recited. “That is a chair.”

The next subject: fruits and trees in America.

After piping up with answers like banana and orange, the English-language learners shouted “jackfruit” – a musky staple of their native Bhutan.

The instructors knew little about it.

“Is the jackfruit tree big?” Miller asked.

“Very, very big,” several students replied, beaming.

They took pride in teaching the teachers – a twist that helps them build self-confidence, social worker Melissa Fogg said.

“That’s the thing,” she said. “It’s not all teach-down, teach-down.”