As a child, Bishop’s School student Lila Chitayat always looked forward to art class. She said it offered her a chance for creative expression and provided an outlet from academics.
“When I think back to my childhood, I think of all the art I would create,” said Lila, 16. “My mom still has all these things from elementary school art; it’s just so nostalgic for me.”
Wanting to give a similar opportunity to refugee children now living in San Diego, she partnered with Kian Tayebi — a fellow junior at The Bishop’s School, an Episcopal school in La Jolla for sixth through 12th grades — to establish Creative Sanctuary, a nonprofit organization that collects art supplies and compiles kits for projects for the children to do while they are sheltering in place during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Before the pandemic hit, the idea was to have refugees create art and display it in public places, and we would host art events and auction it and the income would go back to refugee organizations,” said Kian, 17. “I feel like refugees, coming from situations they did, with racial cleansing or persecution, have so much to say and I feel like art is such a free form to express yourself.”
So the two reached out to the Episcopal Refugee Network of San Diego, also known as RefugeeNet, to add an art component to the education already offered at the center.
“The center would give them access to after-school tutoring, but art wasn’t really on the table. They focus on education because it’s difficult for the refugees to obtain that,” Lila said. “These refugees come from impoverished countries … and parents have a hard time providing education, let alone activities they can do outside of school.”
Creative Sanctuary came up with projects with themes such as “What does home look like to you?” and “Who are your idols?” and instructions for projects such as origami, paper airplanes and tie-dye coffee filters.
Now, with the pandemic and its accompanying social distancing guidelines, Creative Sanctuary has had to change things up.
Kian and Lila held a supply drive to gather kits that could be sent to the families helped by RefugeeNet. Each kit includes paintbrushes, colored and regular pencils, erasers, pencil sharpeners, a pack of markers, composition notebooks, an instructional art booklet, a bar of soap, three rolls of toilet paper and homemade masks with instructions on how to use them.
“We are going to write handwritten notes to each of the kids … and encourage them to create during this time,” Lila said. “We wanted to give a semblance of normalcy and happiness and give them an opportunity to just be kids.”
Kian added: “Even though all we’ve done is have a supply drive, this experience has made me feel really good. I feel like we are giving them something we have had access to and something we have been privileged to have. It’s amazing that even though it’s such a difficult time that we can provide something for them.”
Kian and Lila started Creative Sanctuary as a result of their participation in Whatever It Takes, a nonprofit that helps teens and tweens become entrepreneurs through high school college credit programs, virtual summer camps and more. The program works with UC San Diego for college credits.
Going forward, Creative Sanctuary has partnered with Amazon Smile so online shoppers can donate part of their purchase prices to fund future art kits and supplies. To participate, go to smile.amazon.com and select the “Change your charity” option and select Creative Sanctuary.
Kian and Lila also are looking to hold art classes via Zoom and an online art event to showcase some of the pieces that have been created.
“Our goal is just to encourage people to create and have fun and let some emotions loose,” Lila said. “But we also we want people to show interest in what we have to say and our message. Our goal is not only to share art but their stories as well. We have a virtual gallery in the works to share what these refugees were escaping, their stories and what living in America means to them. There are so many people and so many stories.”
Creative Sanctuary is planning to help RefugeeNet with food distribution and hopes to coordinate an art camp this summer if circumstances permit.
Learn more and view an updated list of needed supplies on Instagram @CreativeSanctuarySD or instagram.com/CreativeSanctuarySD.