Nan Nway carefully dresses a doll in a long, light blue kurta adorned with pink flamingos that give it even more flair.
“Perfect,” she says, with a coy smile. “Pretty.”
For the last several months, refugee and immigrant women who come from across the globe and now are a part of Literacy Pittsburgh’s Family Literacy program have worked together to create dolls that represent their native homelands.
Through a partnership with Whitehall Public Library, the goal is for these dolls to provide the area’s large refugee and immigrant population with the opportunity to check out dolls from the community hub that look and are dressed like their native cultures, all while sharing details about their lives with their new American neighbors.
Once completed, the set of six dolls — representing Nepal, Morocco, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Turkey and the Karen State of Myanmar — will be available for borrowing at the Whitehall Public Library, alongside its already popular American Doll collection. A second set will remain in the Family Literacy’s early childhood education room for children to play with while their parents are in class.
“You want your collection, whether it be dolls, books or anything, to reflect the community you serve,” said Paula Kelly, library director. “But we also wanted to be very intentional about making sure that we introduced these dolls to the longterm residents. So, it’s a bridge-builder.”
Whitehall Public Library recently received a 2019 honorable mention as the Best Small Library in America from the Library Journal, a bimonthly trade publication. Each year, there is one winner and two honorable mentioned in the best small library category.
Kelly discovered the idea for the dolls while reading a post about South Fayette Township library’s effort several years ago to have the community create an Indian doll to represent members of their community.
“When I read that, my light bulb — bing! — it went off,” Kelly said. “We have so much diversity here and wouldn’t it be great to have dolls that represent the different cultures that live in Whitehall?”
Whitehall has had a large population of refugees and immigrants dating to the 1990s. The latest U.S. Census showed that 13.4% of Whitehall’s 13,139 residents older than age 5 speak a language other than English at home, nearly 3% higher than the state average.
Kelly sought assistance from Literacy Pittsburgh to make the project — now named “The We’re All Neighbors Collection” — a reality.
Funding from The Jefferson Regional Foundation was used for the project.
The dolls were chosen based on the native countries of students in Literacy Pittsburgh’s Family Literacy program, which is based out of the former Wallace School in Baldwin Borough. It helps adults gain English language skills and knowledge of American culture while helping preschool children gain early literacy skills.
Along with creating the dolls, the women wrote stories as a background to go with each doll to tell about their culture and food choices.
Just like the American Doll collection, where dolls are borrowed alongside a book, these dolls will come with reading material about their culture and lives.
“We always try to have a literacy component when we circulate the material,” said Denise Ignasky, children’s librarian. Whitehall library even plans to add vocabulary words with the dolls to help children learn more about each country and its native language.
The project began with brainstorming sessions in the Family Literacy classes, said Jessica Orlidge, family literacy instructor.
“They’re all parents in those classes,” she said. “So, their kids are excited to play with those dolls. That’s extra motivation to make these dolls and have it reflect their home.”
Writing the stories intertwined with the English lessons they were learning in class, she said.
Mary Tremonte, an artist in residence with Literacy Pittsburgh from the Office of Public Art, helped with the actual creation of the clothing.
She brought in paper-doll style templates and let the women design the outfits true to their culture.
Then, they got to sewing. Some of the women brought in fabrics from their native countries to use.
Some chose to model the dolls after themselves, telling their own stories from childhood.
Others worked in groups and combined their stories to tell the tale of a person who would have lived in their homeland.
“The students were so excited to see themselves represented in the dolls,” Orlidge said.
The dolls also help with cultural preservation. Orlidge said they hear stories from parents that their children only know how to speak English and don’t know their native language. This is a way, she said, to pass on their culture and traditions to their children.
Nway, a native of Myanmar who lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for 10 years before coming to the U.S. in 2006, smiled as she talked about her excitement over sharing the dolls.
“So other people know where we come from,” said Nway, 35, of Baldwin Borough. “And no matter where we come from, we are all the same. We are one world.”