Words

When You Can’t Go Home

Portraits of refugees in the Pacific Northwest

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

“Go back to where you came from!” a man yells from the window of his truck as he drives by a young Eritrean woman crossing the street. The truth is she would love to go back to her home country. She misses her family, the smell of her favorite foods and all of the belongings she left behind. The problem is she would likely be persecuted and even killed if she ever returned. She is here because she can’t go home.

Tens of thousands of refugees like her come to the United States each year from all over the world. Threatened by persecution and war, these people leave behind everything to seek safety and a chance for a new start.

“These stories break hearts, and that’s a good thing” Seattle watercolor artist Karisa Keasey relates in the opening of her book that explores the lives of refugees through portraits and narratives. When You Can’t Go Home shares the intimate stories of refugees from diverse nations in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East who have relocated to the Pacific Northwest.

Unlike migrants, refugees do not make conscious choices to leave their countries to seek a safer or more prosperous life. Often, they are forced to leave without warning. They must leave behind their homes, most of their belongings, family and friends. They don’t have time to plan their travel, say goodbye to loved ones or learn about their new location. The journey to safety for a refugee is full of risks and leaves them vulnerable to disease and abuse. They are not able to return home unless the situation in their country changes.

“My heart was first opened to the refugee crisis seven years ago when I came across an article about the Syrian civil war,” Keasey, 30, relates. My heart was shattered at the persecution of countless men, women and children. What broke my heart further were the hateful comments: ‘We don’t want you here.’ ‘Terrorist.’ ‘Go back home!’

“How could people respond so heartlessly to people who have experienced such tragedy?

“Like many of us, I felt helpless,” Keasey said. “What could I, an artist, do in the face of such hatred and global atrocities? Anger at the injustice—and conviction to actually do something about it—consumed me. I knew that if I was going to say I was an ally to refugees, I needed to actually spend time with refugees in my own community.

“After a tearful conversation with my husband, Jordan, I realized that I needed to move beyond empathy and into compassion. I needed to do something about it—to spread awareness, raise funds and encourage compassion for refugees. That is when I decided to create a book that tells the story of 10 refugees from all over the world who settled in the Pacific Northwest, along with 30 of my watercolor paintings.”

Keasey captures the essence of each individual’s story through her paintings and gift with storytelling. She spent hours with each refugee featured in her book and helps her readers feel as if they have, too. With the help of World Relief, a globally celebrated refugee resettlement organization, Keasey is able to couple inspiring stories with the hard-hitting facts surrounding the current global refugee crisis.

Despite an increase in people displaced by human rights abuses or environmental collapse, refugee resettlement in the United States during the Trump administration was limited to 15,000 people per year, the lowest it has been since 1980. The incoming administration has pledged to restore those numbers by a factor of 10. Restoring the United States to its role in refugee relief will take enormous resources.

“I began volunteering at World Relief Seattle to learn more about the refugee crisis and how I could help. As I immersed myself in the refugee community, I began seeing a massive disconnect between who refugees, asylees and immigrants are, and how they are often portrayed in the media,” Keasey explains. “They are not victims, villains or saints. Refugees, asylees and immigrants are people with complex dreams, backgrounds, strengths and desires just like any other person.

“Refugee experiences need to be humanized experiences for the general public instead of categorizing them for political gain,” she asserts. “This is where I could help bridge the gap.

“I made a commitment to partner with World Relief and refugees in my area. I work alongside refugees who desire to tell their stories but don’t necessarily have the time or resources to do so. Not only do I generate empathy and amplify their voices through written and painted art, I also make a practical impact by giving 50 percent of my profit to World Relief as they aid refugees in the resettlement process.

“For two years I worked closely alongside refugees in my own community, recording and painting their stories. I am so thankful that each participant trusted me with their story and allowed me the liberty to bring it to life.”

Keasey began this project with a hope of correcting other peoples’ misconceptions of refugees, but quickly realized that she had her own misconceptions that needed to be addressed. She worked through that understanding through her art. This book creates a safe place to reconcile misconceptions and for honest and informed conversation about the refugee crisis to happen.

Learn more about Keasey’s book and order it at http://www.karisakeasey.com.

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