What does it mean to be a “Virginian?” As the Commonwealth’s population gets more diverse, a new exhibition at the Library of Virginia examines this question from the perspectives of residents from dozens of countries. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.
One of the first things you’ll see at the Library of Virginia is a large, colorful mask.
Exhibitions coordinator Barbara Batson says the artist is Mongolian native and Arlington resident Gankhuyag “Ganna” Natsag.
“It's paper mache, so watching him create this was awesome. He does a clay model and then he creates the paper mache over that and he wears these for rituals. It's a particular form of Buddhism that he practices and he has a school in Arlington where he teaches Mongolian culture, which I think is really great. And just wow, this is really cool!
(Music: Julia Garcia playing the charango)
For the New Virginians exhibition, Bolivian-born Julia Garcia lent the Library two charangos made by her father. It’s a guitar-lute like instrument that looks similar to like a ukulele.
Julia Garcia: All the songs in Quechua is huayno. Huayno is a type of rhythm since Inca times.
The exhibition includes objects of meaning to Virginia residents who came here as immigrants and refugees. But the centerpiece is more than 30 interviews conducted by Virginia Humanities exploring peoples’ pathways here, their culture and traditions, challenges they’ve faced and obstacles they’ve overcome.
“New Virginians” interviewed for the project came from Bangladesh, Mexico, Afghanistan, Kenya, Ireland, Iran and many other countries. Currently, about one out of every eight people in Virginia is an immigrant, like Seyoum Berhe.
Seyoum Berhe: I am the only one from my family who came here, I came here as a student.
Berhe left Ethiopia after high school to study at a seminary in the US. He wanted to be a priest, but ended up serving the public in another way as Virginia’s State Refugee Coordinator, a job he loves.
Berhe: I have learned a lot from refugees that I work with. They’re my teachers, you know people might think I'm helping them, but I'm not quite sure who's helping who.
Berhe says when many newcomers arrive, they’ve fled war, persecution, and trauma. Sometimes, they arrive at in the US with nothing but paperwork.
Berhe: So when you look at them and say, oh they got nothing and I start thinking, oh my God, they got so much. We just don't see it.
Berhe came up with a metaphor to help people understand what immigrants and refugees experience coming to a new place. He says visualize them arriving at the airport, on their left side are two pieces of luggage.
Berhe: One is nervousness, fear.
On the right there’s more than double the luggage, and these are filled with dreams and hopes.
Another Virginian featured in the exhibit is Aliaa Khidr, who’s lived in Charlottesville for the last 22 years. Khidr’s originally from Egypt, where she learned an important lesson early on.
Aliaa Khidr: I was raised by a beautiful gentleman, my father, who saw beauty in every human being. He would never describe people with their features, but with their personality, with how big their heart is or how do they stand up for what's right. He always gave these images for people, so for me, the people were always the riches of the world.
Khidr says Virginia is a place with an abundance of these riches, an abundance beauty; she sees it in everyone she meets.
Khidr: We're here to enjoy knowing each other. It's not about tolerating each other or accepting each other. It's about enjoying each other. It's an abundance of blessings. So I'm so thankful for that blessing.
New Virginians was partially inspired by the upcoming 2020 census, says the Library’s Barbara Batson. Looking to the future and the growing diversity in the Commonwealth, she says they wanted to spark discussion about the ways in which Virginians will come together and shape the future.
Batson: As you listen to these stories, think about your own family and how you fit into the culture, what challenges you have and what the commonalities are. And again, I think when you start listening to the stories you realize that there are a lot of commonalities, there are a lot of common threads.
In the addition to the exhibit, the Library plans to offer talks and panel discussions with first-generation immigrants. New Virginians is part of the statewide 2019 “American Evolution” commemoration. The Library of Virginia’s exhibit runs through the early December, 2019. For Virginia Currents, I'm Catherine Komp, WCVE News.