We journalists sometimes despair that there’s anyone left out there heeding our words and paying attention to our reporting. But stories can still have a powerful effect on readers.
Witness Kim Tamalonis, a resident of Greenwich’s backcountry who teaches art to sixth, seventh and eighth graders at Rye Middle School. In the summer of last year, Tamalonis noticed a difference in the number of stories about Syrian refugees, from a few to what she aptly calls “an onslaught of headlines” — headlines that increasingly drew attention to the refugees’ life-and-death struggles to find freedom, peace and security.
“We knew it was happening. It wasn’t as if we didn’t know it,” she says. “The whole world was watching. But it seems as if with the exception of a few brave reporters, the rest of us were bystanders for this reality TV. And I thought, What is happening to the world? What is it coming to?”
Tamalonis is talking over lunch at Le Pain Quotidien on Rye’s Purchase Street, where the warm French country flavors and atmosphere contrast sharply with the subject of conversation. Few are more aware of the disparity between our fortunate circumstances here and those of the refugees than Tamalonis, who is young in spirit in the way many teachers are. She decided to take up the refugees’ cause with 140 students and their parents.
“My students have the biggest hearts and they said, ‘Yes, we want to be part of this.’ And their parents were only too happy to help.”
The students collected 100 pounds of art supplies, which the Rye Post Office mailed — free of charge — to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan through the Seattle-based nonprofit Studio Syria.
The students created artwork that was exhibited at The Rye Arts Center, along with notecards that could also be purchased. (The notecards were sold at Rye’s Arcade Booksellers as well.) The result was more than $3,100 for the Blossom Hill Foundation in New Canaan, which creates programs for children in conflict zones.
But Tamalonis wanted to do more than this, so she got in touch with Hagar Hajjar Chemali, the founding CEO of Greenwich Media Strategies, LLC, whose many titles with the federal government included director for Syria and Lebanon at the National Security Council. Chemali led her to Church World Service, the relief, development and refugee assistance arm of the National Council of the Churches of Christ, which in turn led her to the CWS’ Jersey City, New Jersey, refugee resettlement office and a group of Syrian, Ethiopian and Eritrean children. Although you may think that the refugees’ challenges are over once they pass the rigorous, yearlong screening process to get here, that is far from true, Tamalonis says. They must repay the loan for their transport to America. They have only eight months of medical care and three to six months of income. Tamalonis was determined to give 24 children and some mothers an artistic respite. She would take them to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where her mother was a volunteer docent. Getting The Met, which has a strong tradition of art education, on board was easy. Renting a bus was more of a hurdle, but through the GoFundMe link on Facebook, friends and supporters from as far as California came through. (The organization and business sponsors were J&R Tours, Inc., Mrs. Green’s in New Canaan, Pace Prints, The Rye Arts Center and Starbucks in Greenwich.)
On Aug. 31, the group set out for its art day, meeting up at the museum with a refugee family recently settled in Greenwich. In The Met’s Ruth and Harold D. Uris Center for Education, museum President Daniel H. Weiss addressed the group before the mothers got a whirlwind tour of The Met with curatorial assistant Harout Simonian and the children enjoyed sketching and interactive experiences in the Islamic galleries with artist Azi Amiri. At the end of the day, Ann Nicol, executive director of the United Nations Association of New York, presented each child with a backpack of school supplies. And Hadi Hajjar — a successful businessman of Lebanese descent who had accompanied the group — gave them bags filled with what Tamalonis calls “joyful and practical things” like games and clocks.
That day of art has inspired Tamalonis. She wants to start a nonprofit, buy a bus for future trips, publish a book of the refugee children’s experiences and start a speakers’ bureau so that the refugee families — whose stories are in demand — can get paid for their public appearances. She carries with her memories of that day — the children presenting her with Syrian food that the mothers had packed in Tupperware containers for the trip and the kids, who did not necessarily know one another, instantly bonding.
“They were singing Syrian folk songs. They were just so happy to be on the bus on a field trip.”
Her eyes brim with tears and darn if yours don’t too as you realize that this is one woman who will never be a bystander to history.