Art project helps newcomers feel at home

Amanda Buckland and Virginia Settre are helping newly arrived refugees and migrants adjust to Australia through a blend of art, friendship and teamwork.

With a community project called Makasi, Ms Buckland and Ms Settre work with Illawarra migrant and refugee groups to create unique art installations.

"It's difficult adjusting to a new country, but this is something positive and inspirational for them," Ms Buckland said.

Launched last week with an exhibit at Wollongong's Studio 19 gallery, Makasi works with groups from countries including Afghanistan, Burma, Iraq and Ethiopia.

Makasi is a Swahili word meaning home or shelter, and the group's efforts culminate with exhibits that - either literally or figuratively - produce feelings of safety or comfort.

"We make installations like tents or dome structures," Ms Buckland said.

"They are spaces people can sit and have dialogue."

Ah Mee Dashi was settled in Australia two years ago, after fleeing her native Burma then spending years in a Malaysian refugee camp.

With a sewing group from the Illawarra Multicultural Services Society, Ms Dashi is part of a kite project run by Makasi.

"I am interested in fashion design but have no chance to study it," she said.

"In this group, we use sewing machines to practise and learn new skills."

The Homeland Kites project came from a kite festival banned by the Taliban in Afghanistan, Ms Buckland said. Members of Makasi adorn kites with images of their homeland, celebrating the heritage they left behind.

"The kite is a symbol of freedom, and we looked at cultural symbols that would connect with people from their culture or with similar experiences as refugees," she said. "They use images from their homes, like sports or drums or trees."

Homeland Kites will be installed at the Illawarra Folk Festival in January, adding to a big start to 2014 that will also see Makasi show a large installation at the Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland on New Year's Day.

"Art is an opportunity to communicate ideas about where they come from and where they're going," Ms Buckland said.

"It builds self-esteem and identity. Acknowledging culture is the foundation for their self confidence, it's not something they have to let go of."

Makasi's launch exhibit at Studio 19 runs until Monday.

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