Featuring colorful flowers and butterflies alongside burning homes and people fleeing their homeland, a new mural on the corner of Seneca and Geneva Street painted by teen refugees from Myanmar depicts the dramatic transition from their life back home to their new life in Ithaca.
Many refugees from Myanmar, including those of the Karen ethnic group, fled the country after genocide and religious and ethnic persecution by the government. At a camping retreat near Ithaca, some of the Karen Burmese teens expressed a desire to highlight their presence in Ithaca and make a mark on the community, feeling that their ethnicities and histories were often misunderstood, according to Ramona Cornell, coordinator for 4-H Urban Outreach.
After hatching a plan to honor their unique heritage visually, the teens created the design, obtained funding and conducted interviews to contract an artist. After two year’s efforts, the mural was completed this August and showcased to the public in September.
The process of creating the mural involved meeting with local government officials, studying mural stories and designing an image that reflects the violence they endured. While 30 teens contributed in various ways to the mural, it was largely spearheaded by Eh Tha Yoo Lee, who is now studying at Wells College, and Eh Lay Paw, who attends Binghamton University.
Funding the mural required “doing anything we could,” Cornell said. The group received a grant from the Ithaca Park Foundation, which was supplemented with the money made from selling flowers and Valentine’s Day merchandise to members of the Cornell community. A GoFundMe campaign created last April raised over $1,000 in donations.
In January, the teens enlisted the help of local mural artist Dan Burgevin and Caleb Thomas from Ithaca Murals.
The mural uses three panels to showcase this journey, with the first panel depicting a girl in a forest hiding in the forest and homes burning in the background of Myanmar. The second image shows Karen people fleeing to refugee camps in neighboring Thailand. And following the theme of transition, the final panel shows the teens living in Ithaca, featuring notable buildings, such as the Immaculate Conception Church, layered over a Cayuga Lake sunset in the background.
“Flowers and butterfly mask the genocide on the Karen People. A girl hiding in the Burmese forest from the brutal military junta. Many Karen crossed the Sarawren to peace and security in Thailand,” reads the text placed at the bottom of the three panels.
‘“Starting new families, they obtained refugee status and eventually came to the USA where they vote, work, and live free!”