Dao came to Canada many years ago, at the age of 16, as one of the hundreds of thousands of “boat people” who fled Vietnam after the war.
He came from difficult circumstances, but he now exudes joy and gratitude about his new life.
It is that hopeful spirit that Grade 11 Robert Bateman Secondary School (RBSS) student Madison North has captured in a painting of Dao that depicts a giant wave looming over him.
The wave symbolizes the conflict from his past, and the painting denotes his courage in facing the challenge and moving forward.
The artwork is among 26 pieces created by students in the new Art Activism class at RBSS to raise money for a $15,000 scholarship that will be awarded to a student who has come to Abbotsford as a refugee fleeing hardship in their home country.
The class was conceived and developed more than a year ago by teacher Alexandra Blair, who wanted to combine art and social justice.
It began this year at the school and, in conjunction with Canada’s 150th birthday, Blair wanted to focus on a project that would examine diversity and what it means to be a Canadian.
She came up with the idea of depicting, through art, the stories of refugees, and called on the help of Abbotsford Community Services and individuals to find local citizens who might want to participate.
The result was 10 refugees from various backgrounds who were willing to share their stories with students and have paintings created.
These individuals – whom Blair refers to as “the volunteers” – included a woman who came to Canada in the 1940s from Russia, a gay couple from Syria, and a young woman who was born in the middle of a bomb strike in Kosovo.
Two or three students were then matched to each volunteer and tasked with researching the history of that person’s place of origin.
They then had to present their findings in a creative or visual presentation in class.
The next step was for the students to conduct interviews with the volunteers to gather more personal details and to gather inspiration for the artwork they would create.
They began the paintings in March, with the goal of completing them by May 20.
Each painting is either three by four feet, or four by five feet. Blair said everyone involved wanted the work to be hopeful and inspiring, despite the traumatic experiences that the refugees had endured.
“We’re representing their story, but we’re also representing the person, and I think people were very interested in being represented where they are now, and everything that is ahead of them. There was a lot of joy and a lot of excitement in these interviews about being in Canada and being very proud to be Canadian,” she said.
Blair said the refugees and students who participated found it empowering to be giving something back to the community.
Grade 11 students Mady Hart and Eva Janzen were each paired with Hasan, a gay man who fled Syria after being drafted into the army there and then made his way to Istanbul before coming to Canada.
Mady’s painting shows Hasan heading into the horizon, with the Istanbul skyline on one side, and the Vancouver skyline on the other.
Eva’s painting captures the final part of Hasan’s journey, showing him and his boyfriend, happy and comfortable together, with the mountains in the background.
The two girls said they learned from Hasan’s story the importance of staying true to oneself and not changing your beliefs.
Brittnee Ho, also in Grade 11, was paired with volunteer Hana, whose mother had fled Kosovo with her when she was just a baby, while her dad fought as a soldier in the army.
Brittnee said the project helped her to realized “how much you should appreciate your life.”
“She’s such a happy person and really appreciates the opportunities that she gets here,” she said of Hana.
The paintings will be displayed and made available for sale at three upcoming exhibits: May 27 to July 4 at Kariton Gallery (2387 Ware St.) and on June 3 and July 1 at Highstreet Shopping Centre. One of the paintings has already sold, but 15 of the remaining ones will be sold for $500 each and the other 10 will be sold for $750 each.
The paintings will also be displayed at supporting businesses over the summer.
The art and associated interviews will be published in a book, which will also be sold to raise funds for the scholarship, for whom a recipient will be determined at a later date.