Research Breakthrough Moments: Arts Engagment With Refugee Youth

Early meeting with Nepali refugee students in Fleisher’s Teen Lounge.

Joseph J Gonzales

As much as we coach and guide students through research planning and execution, the path of qualitative research is unpredictable, and deep learning often takes place outside the margins of the best laid proposals. “Eureka” moments can happen during an interview or conversation, during the scouring of archives or source materials, or in the moment during an event or program. This series of blog entries is devoted to those “aha” or revelatory moments when the process of discovery leads to the coalescing, affirmation, or contradiction of research ideas. Students will be sharing these moments in 500 words or less, and the rest, you will be able to learn from their theses projects.

Students and mothers looking at Fleisher materials. 


In the spirit of the assignment, I will share a research moment as well. This relates to the audience research and community engagement strategy building efforts I was leading at the Fleisher Art Memorial between 2008 and 2010, funded by a Wallace Foundation Excellence Awards grant. The research goals were to: better understand existing Fleisher audiences; better understand prospective non-traditional, low-income immigrant and African-American audiences from the immediate neighborhoods; and, develop engagement strategies for connecting Fleisher with these non-traditional audiences.

Teaching artist working with Nepali students. 


This research was replete with “aha” moments, but one that stands out occurred during a partnership with Nationality Services Center (NSC) to provide art classes to newly arrived Nepali refugee youth who lived in the target neighborhoods. Working with NSC to provide out-of-school opportunities with these young people was completely in line with the project goals and something that Fleisher staff agreed was the right thing to do. After all, these children were coming from refugee encampment experiences in Bhutan; were adjusting to life in America and in South Philadelphia, more specifically; were targets of bullying by their school peers; and, Fleisher had a strong history of providing programs for young people.

So we undertook and documented the process as part of the larger research project. The experience was as rewarding as it was challenging. There was a strong sense among Fleisher staff that they were doing good, and making an impact on these young people’s lives, while directly achieving some of the goals that had been set. However, there were many unforeseen challenges. Without providing all of the details we quickly realized that:


– Language and communication were issues.
– The number of staff required to work with these young people was triple the number needed to work with traditional youth. 
– The “reported” age of the children did not appear to match their actual age.
– Attending regular, after school programs, some distance away form their homes was a challenge.

Students, including Nepali refugee youth, from MigrantEd.

As a result, we understood that working with refugees like these required significant resources and a greater hands-on approach than we were prepared for, or that we could sustain. Through this implementation, testing, and documentation, we ultimately understood that working with the largest number of the Nepali youth was best achieved through our Community Partnerships in the Arts program, not through our after-school Teen Lounge or Saturday Classes for Young People. Working with a community partner who was better equipped to understand the many issues of working with refugees and newly arrived immigrants, South Philadelphia Migrant Education, to provide them teaching artists and access to Fleisher space proved to be a strategy to work with and serve this community. Our hopes were that some of these students, once their had adjusted to their lives in Philadelphia; once their families had established more stable lives; and once the young people could better navigate and understand their schools, their neighborhoods, and Philadelphia; would see Fleisher as a welcoming and valued place for them to pursue artmaking, utilize Fleisher as a community gathering place, and, to ultimately see Fleisher as a place for themselves and their families.

Student became a Teen Summer Volunteer.
Of course we wanted to succeed in providing direct services to these wonderful young people and families, but the research and experience showed us a better way to do so.