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New Exhibit Explores The Plight Of Refugees Through Personal Items

An undated photograph by Jim Lommasson of musical instruments on display as part of the "What We Carried" exhibit at the New Americans Museum of San Diego.
Courtesy Photo
An undated photograph by Jim Lommasson of musical instruments on display as part of the "What We Carried" exhibit at the New Americans Museum of San Diego.
New Exhibit Explores The Plight Of Refugees Through Personal Items
New Exhibit Explores The Plight Of Refugees Through Personal Items GUESTS: Linda Caballero Sotelo, executive director, New Americans Museum James Elia, second-generation Chaldean American

If you had to leave your home forever with almost no notice, what would you take with you? Many families fleeing war-torn countries have been forced to make those decisions. The new exhibit in San Diego shines the spotlight on the touching, odd and overall very personal items scooped up and now treasure by the families of immigrants and refugees from Iraq and Syria. Joining me is Linda Caballero Sotelo, executive director of the New Americans Museum and curator of the exhibit, what we carried. Fragments and memories from my rock and Syria. Welcome to the program. Also hears James Elia a second generation from El Cajon who helped organize the exhibit. James, welcome. Thank you. Linda the mission of the New Americans Museum is to preserve and document stories of the immigrant experience in the U.S. Anything this exhibit does that? I think the storytelling component is the key part of it. The universal themes that all of us can relate to around displacement, around family values, around objects that become more meaningful when we either have to leave them behind or we bring them with us to a new setting in a new home. There are different parts to this exhibit. One is a series of photographs that are on loan from the Arab American National Museum in Michigan. Does about some of the images and what they represent. The exhibition actually "What We Carried: Fragments and memories from Iraq and Syria", is curated by the national Museum of American Museum. The photographs compose, there is a long-term project over 120 pictures that were taken by Jim Lammas and overspent of years. The once in San Diego we have about 50 with a special focus where calling it a gallery with in a gallery and that is the portion of the new Americas Museum curated. The focus on local community with over 50,000 strong. Wanted to shiny lens on the contributions of Chaldean Americans as well. It was a sense of the types of objects on view. Some of the local objects include beautiful teacups that are very special to the family. They may not have been able to bring the entire set but even one, two or three is reminiscent of the time when things weren't normal so to speak before they had to pick up and starting new life elsewhere. There are objects like a prayer beat, a doll that someone captain brought with them. The photograph collection is very moving as well there are objects that work photographed that include a pair of glasses that belong to someone's mother. That was the only thing he could bring with him when he came to America. One of the things that this particular person shared was through these classes he could try to imagine how his mother saw the world and never forget. He can relate to the connection to family and others. James let me bring you in. You RA second-generation Chaldean American and I understand your family provided some personal objects that are part of this exhibit. Queue tell us about those? My first book to lend about getting in on this project the first thing I thought to myself, I have got a lot going on, can I take this on but once I got to the museum and I saw Linda's vision and I saw the care and passion that the new Americas Museum put into this, said there is no way could not be part of it. I got excited and told my dad about it, we are on exhibit they are doing Chaldeans finally. We have the spotlight. He told me, we have to put something in there. He gave me the item that he has cherished the most. The has holy water from the Jordan river. He has land from the holy land and he has oil from the holy land in the little wooden cross blessed by Pope John Paul the second. These are his most important items that he brought with him. He carried them everywhere. We have nice teacups that might -- that my grandfather gave my dad. We have traditional garbs that you would we are for an engagement party or something like that. We are so excited that people are really trying to learn more about the community because we are very predominate community here in San Diego County. How does this help the larger San Diego community get to know their Chaldean, their Iraqi, their Syria neighbors? Just on opening night we met a lot of people and they were like, I am sorry but I did not know what Chaldean was. Can you explain it to me. We had really great conversations and they found out, there are 50,000 of you here in San Diego? Yes. It really gives as a presence in the community. We are already being invited to community events. Since the exhibit we have been contacted by a lot of people on, what can we do to help the community to enrich in the community and to uplift the community. We are very excited that we are on the radar for everybody. Linda, as I talked about in the introduction, this exhibition, made me think about what I would take with me if I had to leave in a moments notice. What other types of questions and takeaways do you hope visitors come away with after they say -- after they see the exhibition. We hope folks will see themselves in the stories and in the people that they are experiencing through the exhibit. One of the things we wanted to think about is, what kind of exhibit appeals to different ages and backgrounds photography tends to be the particular audience but we wanted to make sure we had both objects and personal stories and videos and interactive stations. Also create environments throughout the gallery so folks could get a glimpse of what it is like to see him Middle Eastern home with personal objects and other photographs etc. For us it was about folks walking in the door and seeing themselves represented in the images and in the stories that we try to share. James O'Neill this is not apolitical exhibition but I should mention that you and others in the local county -- Chaldean community about working to raise awareness about Chaldeans who are getting deported. Do you feel that anyway this exhibit underscores some of the work that you are doing as an activist? 100% it does. I've been working very hard, closely with the groups in Michigan and trying to hit the campaign here in San Diego with the ACLU. How can we send people back to Iraq and how can even think of doing that is a nation. You are right it is not apolitical thing is the humanitarian thing. Let me ask you enclosing Linda, are there people listening who maybe have personal items, are you still accepting personal items from people to put on display? We are definitely interested in folks contributions with storytelling so we will be collecting stories in a recording studio. If there is a compelling object they want to share we are always open, to be able to find the place and space for that. I've been speaking with Linda Caballero Sotelo, executive director of the New Americans Museum and James Elia is second generation Chaldean American from El Cajon. The exhibit, what we carried fragments of memories from Iraq and Syria rented the New Americans Museum through September 3. Thank you both.

If you had to leave your home forever, with almost no notice, what would you take with you?

Many families fleeing war-torn countries have been forced to make those kinds of decisions.

A new exhibit in San Diego shines a spotlight on the touching, odd and overall very personal items scooped up and now treasured by the families of immigrants and refugees from Iraq and Syria.

“What We Carried: Fragments and Memories from Iraq and Syria” is on display at the New Americans Museum San Diego in Liberty Station through September 3.

The exhibit features a series of photographs on loan from the Arab American National Museum that show a wide range of items people have carried with them, from musical instruments to reading glasses and a teddy bear. Each image is accompanied by a personal note written by the owner of the object.

Also on display are family heirlooms and personal items that belong to Chaldean-American families who live in El Cajon.

Linda Caballero Sotelo, executive director of the New Americans Museum, said the exhibit is meant to foster understanding at a time when negative messages attempt to dismiss the contributions of immigrants.

"I think the storytelling component is a key part of it. The universal themes that all of us can relate to around displacement, around family values, around objects that become more meaningful when we either have to leave them behind or we bring them with us to a new setting and a new home. Some of the local objects include beautiful tea cups that are reminiscent of a time when things were normal, so to speak, before they had to pick up and move elsewhere. There are things like a doll that someone kept and brought with them," Caballero Sotelo said.

Caballero Sotelo and James Elia, a second generation Chaldean American from El Cajon who helped organize the exhibit, shared some of the stories behind the objects, Tuesday on Midday Edition.