Portraits of the children of the Rohingya

Art students at Tomah High School created portraits of children of the Rohingya ethnic group as part of the non-profit organization The Memory Project.

Back Row: Bonnie Vlasek, Samara Steinmetz, Jodi Thompson, Autumn Sparks and Molly Zimpel.

Middle Row: Brock Greathouse, Lillian Gilpin, Hailey Vandervort, Kellee Eckleberg and Lisa Winchel.

Front Row: Arianna Hohenstein and Chevelle Luera.

Art created by Tomah High School students will be gifted to children halfway across the globe.

Lisa Winchel, THS art teacher, said a group of 11 students and herself volunteered to create portraits of 12 children of the Rohingya Muslim group which has fled genocide in Myanmar and are among 400,000 people sheltering in a refugee settlement in Bangladesh.

The portraits are created as part of The Memory Project, a non-profit organization based in Middleton, to help the children feel important and valued.

The students drew portraits based on photographs of the children, Winchel said. Once completed, The Memory Project send the portraits to the children.

According to the organization’s website, more than 130,000 portraits have been created for children in 47 countries since 2004.

Winchel said she was glad to have her students participate in the project as it expands their worldview and provides something nice for the children who have suffered through the conflict.

“In a small town, I think we’re so used to what’s going on here that we forget that half a world away there are kids who are war-torn. They’re displaced, their parents are killed, they’re put in camps. They don’t have access to water or food or clothes,” she said. “When The Memory Project connects the students with the kids there, it’s like a piece of hope for them ... these pictures of themselves. They’re thrilled to receive them and know that someone thinks about them or cares about them half a world away.”

THS students volunteered to draw the portraits, Winchel said. Originally they needed five volunteers as they were given five photos to create portraits from, but they later received seven more photographs through of a connection with THS social studies teacher Amy White.

Student and volunteer for the project Samara Steinmetz told Winchel that White taught about Myanmar and the Rohingya crisis this past semester in her world geography class. Steinmetz mentioned the project to White, who is involved with the Compassion Project component of the Remembering Jesse Charity. After White was approached, the charity funded seven more photos to become portraits.

Steinmetz was excited to work on the project.

“When I was taking world geography, I was like, this is so sad, all these people are getting kicked out of Myanmar for just who they are, and I don’t think that’s fair,” she said. “ I always think that with stuff like this if there’s ever anything I can do to help them I’ll do it, so when this project came up I’m like, ‘I think that’s kind of my sign to get on that.’”

Student Autumn Sparks volunteered for the project because she has a love for children.

“I really like kids, so I was kind of drawn to it because kids just make me happy, and I felt really bad for them and I wanted to help them out and make them feel better,” she said. “It’s something really nice for them to have, so they have something that makes them feel good about themselves.”

Winchel said the students did a wonderful job creating the portraits.

“They really, really wanted to do a good job and I think that was the nicest part of it too,” she said. “They really stressed in the project, they wanted it to look like the child so that they didn’t get something that was way off, and they really wanted it to look like the kids, so they asked if the nose was off or whatever and how can I fix that. ... They didn’t rush through it.”

Steinmetz said the most difficult part of the project was knowing that the portraits would be going to children facing difficult circumstances. The project took her two to three weeks to complete.

“The hardest part for me with this was the fact that this was for someone who had lost everything — had no family, had no home, were living in a refugee camp,” she said. “I needed it to be perfect, and I knew they needed it to be perfect.”

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Meghan Flynn can be reached at meghan.flynn@lee.net.

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