Refugee inside a home working on a hand loom.

Refugee Arts

July 9, 2019
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Worcester is home to one of the biggest refugee populations in the state, and thanks to the partnership between a team of three WPI students and a local nonprofit, it’s now easier than ever for the newcomers to keep their artistic culture and traditions intact.

Last summer juniors Andrew Jalbert, Haozhe (Percy) Jiang, and Jingyi (Betty) Liao collaborated on their project, “Helping Local Refugee Artisans,” which seamlessly blends technology with the arts in a way that’s creative, practical, and undoubtedly WPI.

The project sponsor, Refugee Artisans of Worcester (RAW), was founded in 2010 by Joan Kariko and Ellen Ferrante with a twofold purpose. Many of the artisans who arrive in Worcester see crafting as an invaluable connection to their home countries; RAW gives them the chance to continue crafting, allowing them to preserve their culture and identity while offering them the opportunity earn money.

More than 30 artisans representing 12 countries are currently part of the organization. Many of them are weavers, but the looms donated to RAW weren’t necessarily suitable for them. Some were too heavy, too complicated, too cumbersome. That’s where WPI stepped in.

Through interviews, observations, and home visits, the students were able to adapt four of RAW’s looms, customizing them to better suit the needs and preferences of the artisans. They made them more accommodating to the weavers’ heights, as well as collapsible and portable to allow for them to be carried up stairs and through hallways. They also created an instructional video covering basic maintenance and repair of the looms. A future collaboration between WPI and RAW is in the works—professor of humanities and arts Lance Schachterle and a group of students are working with Susan Rodgers, professor emerita of anthropology at Holy Cross, to create a digital contribution for RAW’s gallery show at the Worcester Center for Crafts in 2020.