Students at Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School in St. Helena are giving visitors to V. Sattui Winery an artful reminder that far away from this land of plenty, families are fleeing their homes in search of safety and a glass of water.
The migration of refugees is the topic of an eighth-grade project at RLS. Student teams each researched a different group of refugees. Some made oral presentations, some designed posters and flyers, others made short films, and the South Sudan group created a mosaic, using colored water bottles and depicting a woman carrying a water jug on her head.
The use of cut-up water bottles reflects the lack of clean water that’s one of the factors driving the South Sudanese from their homes. Established in 2011, South Sudan is the world’s youngest country. In addition to a severe drought, it suffers from a weak central government, widespread poverty, a lack of schools, pollution, and vicious ethnic violence that’s resulted in the death and rape of thousands of civilians.
RLS has an annual Immigration Challenge for eighth-graders, but this year teachers focused on refugees to align with Napa County Reads selection of Alan Gratz’s “Refugee” as its book of the year.
The novel familiarized students with the “push-pull factors” that cause people to leave their homes in search of better lives, said eighth-grade English teacher Jennifer Marinace, who collaborated with English teacher Terry Messmer.
After finishing the book, students split into groups, chose their topics, and started doing research – not all of it online.
With the help of adult mentors, “These kids had to get on the phone and call City Hall or Mike Thompson’s office or some other source, behave maturely, communicate, and get the information they needed,” Marinace said.
The South Sudan group consisted of Arleth Bautista, Brandon Diaz, Aribella Farrell, Talia Ricci and Mia Wagner. They got in touch with a friend of Farrell’s mom who works with refugees, and they tracked down information on a few credible websites.
They were deeply affected by their research of a place “where everything that can go wrong has gone wrong,” Ricci said.
“Women and children are leaving because the military is abusive and they rape women whenever they want,” Ricci said. “Men are leaving because there are no job opportunities and very little food and water.”
Seventy percent of South Sudanese schools are shut down, Diaz added.
Many civilians travel to United Nations-run refugee camps in neighboring countries like Uganda, where 2 million South Sudanese refugees have fled.
The Robert Louis Stevenson mural outside the RLS Museum inspired them to “do something big” that would reach a lot of people and raise awareness of the South Sudanese refugee crisis, Farrell said.
“Someone in our group decided a winery would be the best place for it because a lot of people from outside of town would see it and then go back to wherever they were from and tell people about it,” Farrell said.
It took 17 days for the team of five students to design, sketch and build the mosaic.
“Our group was just thrown together, and to be able to make something this special was really cool,” Wagner said.
The sign next to the art briefly describes the dire situation in South Sudan and invites visitors to donate to groups like the UNHCR, the Heartland Alliance, and Peace Winds Japan, which is building water infrastructure in South Sudan.
“We’re hoping that if the UN doesn’t have to spend so much time trying to get funded, then ultimately a more permanent solution can rise up,” Ricci said.
“Our main goal is to affect the refugee groups and help them in any way we can,” Farrell said.