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Young Whitehall refugees create multimedia works about selves in library project

| Thursday, July 21, 2016, 4:03 p.m.
Ma ha Dhakal originally of Bhutan views a cut out project of another Whitehall Place child resident, on display at Whitehall Public Library.
Ma ha Dhakal originally of Bhutan views a cut out project of another Whitehall Place child resident, on display at Whitehall Public Library.
Laxmi Darjee (left) and Saraswati Guragain both originally of Bhutan view a 'My Story' project made by children from Whitehall Place, on display at Whitehall Public Library.
Laxmi Darjee (left) and Saraswati Guragain both originally of Bhutan view a 'My Story' project made by children from Whitehall Place, on display at Whitehall Public Library.
Ker Nyaw Say, 18, 9left) and Eh Ku Say, 15, look at a project made by another another Whitehall Place child resident, on display at Whitehall Public Library.
Ker Nyaw Say, 18, 9left) and Eh Ku Say, 15, look at a project made by another another Whitehall Place child resident, on display at Whitehall Public Library.
Ba Blu Moo, 10, of Whitehall Place stands in front of a project she made, to tell her story, on display at Whitehall Public Library.
Ba Blu Moo, 10, of Whitehall Place stands in front of a project she made, to tell her story, on display at Whitehall Public Library.
Lah Say (left) and Eh Ler Hser, 10, look at a project made by another Whitehall Place child resident, on display at Whitehall Public Library.
Lah Say (left) and Eh Ler Hser, 10, look at a project made by another Whitehall Place child resident, on display at Whitehall Public Library.

Ba Blu Moo sketched a self-portrait on a life-size piece of paper with twisted brown yarn draping over for hair and floral material for clothing.

To add to her story, she put a ribbon in her hair, just like she wears in real life, and took a disposable camera around her Whitehall Place neighborhood to capture what life is like for refugees who moved to the area.

“I liked going to the neighbors. They're nice to me,” said Ba Blu Moo, 10, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and moved to Whitehall when she was 2 years old. Her family, natives of Burma, was forced to move to a refugee camp in Burma due to civil unrest.

Whitehall Public Library received a $500 mini-grant from the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation for its “Open Books: My Story, My Neighborhood” project, which tied together multimedia art and writing and incorporated Keats' use of collage and celebration of diversity.

Keats is known for having “very diverse characters in his books in a poor, urban setting, but yet the children are happy,” Whitehall Public Library Director Paula Kelly said.

More than 70 first- through eighth-graders who participate in the South Hills Interfaith Movement's summer day camp in Whitehall Place, geared for the borough's multi-ethnic refugee population, created silhouettes of themselves to help tell their stories that were paired with short books that helped explain who they are and where they live.

The children captured photographs of their friends and neighborhood with a single-use camera and illustrated pictures to help tell their stories. Their project premiered at the Whitehall Public Library Monday night.

Emma Meetz, who works in circulation at the Whitehall Public Library, said Keats' books empower children and encourage them to learn more about their neighborhoods.

She crafted this project in hopes of tying art and books together for the Whitehall refugees and giving them a chance to explore their new neighborhood, she said.

“Regardless of where you grow up, you have families that you love and friends that you love and places to gather and be together and play and these kids love their day camp, they love their counselors,” Kelly said.

Ba Blu Moo said one of her favorite things about living in Whitehall is the summer day camp at SHIM.

Whitehall has had a large population of refugees dating to the 1990s. The latest U.S. Census showed that 13.4 percent of Whitehall's 13,139 residents older than age 5 speak a language other than English at home, nearly three percentage points higher than the state average. About 9.2 percent of residents speak an Indo-European language at home. The latest influx to the region is natives of Bhutan, who lived in a refugee camp in Nepal for many years.

Eh Ler Say, 9, was excited to show off his silhouette that was hanging in the lobby of the Whitehall Public Library.

His favorite things about his neighborhood: “That I can play and that I have friends,” said Eh Ler Say, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and moved to Whitehall when he was about 1 year old. His family is native to Burma.

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-388-5818 or shacke@tribweb.com.

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