Exhibit at Whitehall library captures refugee stories

| Wednesday, July 30, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The faces of more than 20 refugees were portrayed crisply through the camera's lens.

Some smiled. Others were solemn while dressed in their native garb.

“It's like National Geographic,” a passerby whispered to a friend as she stared at the row of portraits in the Whitehall community room last week.

A project more than a year in the works made its debut at the Whitehall municipal building on July 21 through the “Meet Your Neighbors: Refugee Portrait and Stories” exhibit.

The exhibit included images of 23 refugees living in the Whitehall Place, formerly Prospect Park, apartment complex, and their stories about life in refugee camps and what it was like coming to America.

“These are people that are here that seem so different when they really are just like us,” said Casey Rich, family service coordinator for South Hills Interfaith Ministries Prospect Park family center.

Yet, many people who live next door, even, to the refugees who escaped their homeland, mostly due to ethnic cleansing, do not know their neighbors, organizers said.

Whitehall has had a large presence of refugees, dating back to the 1990s, coming mostly from Bhutan and Burma, while others have moved here from Burundi, Sudan, Turkey, Bosnia, Russia and Iraq.

The latest U.S. Census showed that 13 percent of Whitehall's nearly 14,000 residents speak a language other than English at home.

Last year, photographer Rich Waters took photos at an event at the Whitehall Place complex. After witnessing the area's diversity, Waters volunteered his services, Whitehall Public Library director Paula Kelly said.

For her, Waters' offer triggered the idea. She had just attended a regional event for Pittsburgh-area refugees and left feeling “a little deflated.”

It was all the same people there working to help them, Kelly said.

Kelly said she wanted the refugees' stories to be shared with a wider audience.

Whitehall Public Library partnered with South Hills Interfaith Ministries and Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council to coordinate the exhibit. Waters volunteered his time and the portraits and matting were funded through the Maggie Forbes Community Engagement Award, funded through the Jack Buncher Foundation, the Whitehall Library received in 2013.

In September, nearly 45 refugees gathered to have their portraits taken and did interviews about their experiences.

Many talked about freedom and their hope to succeed in America, Casey said.

Having her portrait taken was intimidating, said Nan Nway, 31, a native of Burma who moved to Whitehall in 2006.

Kuber Uprety stared at the crowds that rushed past him, attempting to get a glimpse of the portraits.

“America. I like America,” Uprety, 65, said. Uprety is a native of Bhutan who came to the United States from a Nepali refugee camp in 2009.

Thagi Mishra, 30, a native of Bhutan who moved to Salt Lake City in 2009 before coming to Whitehall in 2011, said she could see the struggle her friends and neighbors had been through in their portraits.

“When we started, we had sorrow and sadness,” Mishra said. “They are expressing when they had hard times.”

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or shacke@tribweb.com.

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