Until last week, I had not seen many factors which distinguish Refugee Youth Program from any other after-school tutoring program. It is extremely well organized, with time for crafts, homework help, and field trips. The children frequently chatter in Russian or Turkish, but that demonstrates that they are bilingual, not necessarily that they are refugees. This past Thursday it was extremely evident to me how difficult their transition to the United States has been.
Last Thursday, the Johns Hopkins volunteers brought Halloween supplies for the RYP kids, including a ghost craft, candy bags, and face paint. They asked me to help, so I obliged and began to ask the children what they would like on their faces. Some of the younger boys were thrilled, including Mavlud, who instructed me to create a new superhero, “Lightening Man” on his face. Yet I noticed that one of the volunteers, Feride, a refugee herself and older cousin to many of the girls in the second and third grades, appeared unhappy with the situation. She had explained to me why Muslims do not celebrate Halloween, because of the Christian origins of the holiday. I asked if this also applied to the children, because I assumed that many of them do not understand. She agreed that they can be allowed to participate until they recognize the religious implications.
Apparently face paint does not apply to that criterion. Many of the girls began to reject my offers of face paint. Some volunteers became frustrated and wished the children would just comply with the predetermined activity. I tried to remain patient and calm and a few girls opened up to me when I took them to the bathroom. “If I put that on my face, I will never come back to RYP” one little girl whispered. One actually left in tears. I was completely overwhelmed and surprised that a simple tradition I celebrated for years could cause so much tension. As we walked the children home in a Halloween parade (homemade lanterns lit up with glow sticks) I asked Kursten, the RYP coordinator, about the afternoon. She explained that she had approved the activity because usually the Muslim religion prohibits masking the face but that she could see why face paint could become an issue. On the way home, the other Loyola volunteer and I reflected how delicate the situation had become and how it is so essential to maintain respect for the refugees’ identities, as they interpret and maintain their own cultures and religions with different interpretations.
While I realize face paint is far from a tattoo, I see some interesting connections. Tattoos as we are learning about them are permanent and mark adulthood. Face paint allows the wearer to take on a new personage for one day, or even only a couple of hours. Yet both transform identity, both in physical appearance and internal significance.
In her book “Tattooing the World,” Dr. Ellis writes: “Outside of its home contexts, tattoo may create a similar casting out, removing the bearer from the accepted bounds of a differing community” (18). As I saw at RYP, customs which one culture does not even think twice about can cause division within a different community. Yet, Ellis describes Pacific tattoo as: “a sovereign design of a people resisting colonization” (22) and perhaps I should also think of the children’s resistance toward face paint as a sovereign design of the refugee community maintaining their own culture in their new United States home.