A Durango artist who brought art to refugees impacted by the Russia-Ukraine war is preparing her first trip to Lesvos, Greece, where she will continue her visual arts program with African and Middle Eastern refugees seeking asylum.
Suzanne Horwich, founder of Artists Giving Back, said on Wednesday she has an upcoming trip to Lesvos where over 186,000 refugees, including over 5,000 unaccompanied children, are trying to build a new life in an unfamiliar country.
She said most of the refugees living in Lesvos came from Afghanistan, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iran.
“These populations spend years in some of the worst refugee camps in the world waiting for approval of asylum status. AGB is committed to building community, returning dignity and creating hope for refugee populations through our art programming,” she said.
Life for refugees in Lesvos differs from Ukrainians in Poland.
In Poland, Ukrainians are free to travel unrestricted through Europe, Horwich said. But in Greece, refugees must sit tight and wait for their asylum status to be approved, which could take years.
“This really holds my heartstrings because either they're living in absolute squalor … or they're living on the streets. Or they're living in housing, if they're lucky,” she said.
Horwich said her trip will be similar to her efforts in Poland, where she taught visual arts to Ukrainian refugees, mostly women and children, over six visits that culminated in an art gallery showcasing everyone’s work.
She organized her Poland trips with the Jewish Community Center of Krakow. This time, she said she is partnering with Lesvos Solidarity, a non-governmental organization focused on refugee aid that has sheltered tens of thousands of refugees over the last decade, according to the organization’s website.
Her goal for Lesvos is the same as it was for Krakow: restoring dignity to refugees through art by putting the paint brush into their hands and giving them a creative outlet.
Planning an art show for later in the year was a “magnificent” motivator for the people she worked with in Krakow, she said.
“You're working toward something, and so it's building community and returning dignity,” she said.
She said she feels as if her humanitarian interests have come full circle because she finally has a chance to work directly with Syrian refugees, who she has a particular soft spot for.
“Fifteen years ago, roughly, when Assad (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) started using chemical weapons on his own people, I just at that time was in awe that nobody in the world was really talking about this,” she said. “And it just bothered me. Year after year after year, no one was talking about the Syrian refugee crisis.”
Artists Giving Back, which Horwich started as a solo operation, is growing, too. She formally founded it as a nonprofit and recruited a board of directors. She said she hopes to build a team of artists to expand her program and strengthen its presence abroad.
The organization’s new board includes outreach and engagement director Amy Marshall, foundation advisers Ken Maxwell and Matthew Jordan, and contributing artist Marc Bennett.
Horwich said she isn’t ready to start managing people, but she is interested in networking with other people who might bring unique skills to the nonprofit’s mission.
That mission isn’t limited to just helping refugees of war and conflict. Horwich said she wants to reach people displaced by climate change.