Immigrant picture book project gets federal funding

NSCAD instructor April Mandrona is one of several local social scientists and humanities researchers who are sharing $5.7 million in government funding. She will work with refugee children to turn their stories into books. (TIM KROCHAK / Staff)

By John McPhee, The Chronicle Herald, November 15, 2017.  When asked about the importance of storytelling, arts educator April Mandrona punctuates her answer with questions of her own.

“Why do we tell stories? How does art and text help us to communicate aspects of our shared culture, shared humanity . . . and how can that help when considering issues of difference?” Mandrona said in an interview Wednesday in her small office packed with books, miniature ceramic sculptures and prints at the NSCAD University in Halifax.

“Do stories and artwork help in creating connections between people who feel they may be different from each other?”

Those kinds of questions will drive a research project led by Mandrona called For Us by Us: Children’s Picture Books to Promote Solidarity and Acceptance in the Age of Refugees.

The research, which was one of several social sciences and humanities projects to receive federal funding Wednesday, will involve children aged eight to 18 who came to Canada as refugees. Mandrona, who joined the university about a year ago as an assistant professor, and a team of NSCAD students will work with the children in group sessions over the next two years to produce picture books.

One of her goals is finding ways to bridge gaps that might exist between marginalized groups such as refugees and their society. But “in no way are we asking them, ‘Tell me about your story about being a refugee,’” said Mandrona, who joined NSCAD’s faculty after completing post-doctoral work in Coventry, England.

“Part of the problem with that is they have a legal definition of refugee so they can come to Canada. But once established here, often they don’t want to be associated with that sort of marker anymore because of the stigma and they are more than that definition.”

The children will determine what kinds of stories will end up in the picture books and those may indeed draw from their experiences as refugees, she said. Or they may come up with a story like the one about a man who saves a butterfly from a snowstorm, which Mandrona read from the text of a picture book project done at NSCAD last year.

“It’s simply about skill development . . . maybe they know a little bit about painting or drawing, they have artistic tendencies already and we (at NSCAD) can help support and develop those existing skills. Or maybe there’s something that they really want to learn (such as) printmaking.”

Mandrona’s research partners will be Michaelina Jakala and Elisabeth-Jane Milne, both of Coventry University in Britain, and Claudia Mitchell of McGill University in Montreal, all former academic colleagues. They will share their experiences and conclusions from picture book projects at the three universities to create a toolkit and website to help educators, community organizations and policymakers on refugee integration and acceptance.

The Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia will help the researchers find participants for the project.

The NSCAD project received about $66,000 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council funding allotments announced Wednesday at Dalhousie University by Liberal MP Andy Fillmore.

Most of the $5,693,471 in funding went to Dalhousie University, which received $4.8 million for a number of social sciences and humanities projects. These included a policy research project directed by Dalhousie professor Michael Unger, who is also project director for the Child and Youth Refugee Research Coalition. Unger and his coalition colleagues will work to create a model for effective resettlement for young people.

Another immigration-oriented project, led by Dalhousie professor Yoko Yoshida, will analyze immigrant retention and labour market performances in Atlantic Canada.

Saint Mary’s University and the University of King’s College also received funding for social sciences and humanities research.