The Cville Tulips
Art, like kindness, is a universal language.
That is what Cville Tulips, a new initiative that is part of the Sound Justice Lab at the University of Virginia, is all about. Cville Tulips is an organization that serves the emerging group of refugee women and children in the Charlottesville area with programs including visual arts, storytelling, and physical activity. They promote and activate strengths and cultural resilience, acknowledge challenges, prevent social isolation, and establish strengths for refugee women.
Like many great and meaningful efforts, this one owes its existence to a combination of right-place-right-time good fortune and a shared commitment to lifting the spirits and lives of those in our community who need it most.
“It was really kind of random,” said Bonnie Gordon, Associate Professor of Music, Co-director of the Sound Justice Lab, who is at the helm and heart of the project. “Marjan Omranian, a young Iranian woman married to a music Ph.D. student, met families in her own English classes and riding the bus and wondered what we could do to help their adjustment to Charlottesville.”
Last winter’s influx of Afghan refugees to the region had many reaching out to offer help, and what they found was that the most immediate need was shoes. Mark Lorenzoni of Ragged Mountain Running Shop was happy to oblige. “We had just gotten the Sound Justice Lab Democracy Initiative going, so I said ‘let’s just rent a bus and buy shoes for the women,’ so that is what we did.”
At the same time, Gordon had a student who was an Afghan refugee, had gone to Charlottesville High School, and had connections within the community. Gordon worked with her team to provide programming last spring, and they set their sights on the summer with the idea of incorporating the arts more closely.
After offering sporadic programming in the spring, mostly at Fry Springs Beach Club, Gordon and her team decided to continue their work into the summer, focusing heavily on the arts. Given the unique needs of the group, including privacy for Muslim women, finding the proper space was critical. “I reached out to Elliot Tackitt, Director of Bands at UVA, and said, ‘I know there is probably no way, but can we possibly use the band room on Tuesday evenings, and by the way, can there be no men?’ He said yes without any hesitation.”
“I thought about trying to put myself in the shoes of these children and these women,” Tackitt said. “I can’t imagine what it is to be displaced, especially when you look at what has happened globally and for how long it has happened. I don’t feel like I can contribute much- or anything - to them, so we try to do the little we can for our community members, whether they are longstanding or temporary. It just felt like the right thing to do.”
Cville Tulips offered a range of activities, from yoga to Persian dance for the women and painting for the kids and more. They partnered with groups including, The Women’s Initiative and Wildrock, and relied on the kindness and talents of many volunteers, including recent grad and former Miller Arts Scholar Emma Hitchcock.
Word got around Arts Grounds, and soon Gordon had an invite from Virginia Theatre Festival to attend a dress rehearsal of their production of Little Women. VTF Managing Director Sarah Borgatti and Assistant Producer Danait Hadidsh went further than making an invite. Both spent time volunteering with the organization.
“I heard about Cville Tulips from Nathan Moore at WXTJ, where I volunteer,” Haddish said. After talking to Bonnie and reading more about the program, I found that the mission of Cville tulips and its focus on storytelling and art aligned closely with the educational program that the Virginia Theatre Festival was trying to start. The more I began volunteering with Cville Tulips it seemed that people were excited about it, and it excited me to share the work I've been doing with people who would enjoy it.”
As she sat in the theater, with Afghan refugees and Iranian graduate students, Gordon began to wonder just what she had done bringing this group to this show. It is built around issues of death and war, and we have brought these refugees. It was kind of like when you watch a movie with your kids, and halfway through you say, ‘I totally forgot THAT was in there.’” Those worries were unfounded. It turns out, Gordon shared, that a film version of the play is popular on Iranian TV. “The graduate student volunteers all knew the story!”
The show was a big hit for the entire group. “It was such a good production,” Gordon said, “and such a good story. There is just something about live theatre…you forget how magical it can be. I had a five-year-old Syrian refugee with me who was way too young for the show, but her older sister would not go without her. She smiled the whole time and just kept saying ‘Wow!’”
“The show did much more than entertain that day,” Haddish said. It opened new worlds. “Before the event, I was talking to some of the kids of the group about theatre and all the different parts there are like the set, lights, actors, and more, and it all seemed so abstract to them,” she said. “After they watched the show, everything seemed to click for them. They were suddenly all super excited to see more theatre and participate in it more. They were asking me questions about how to be an actor and how to build the set because they loved the show that much.”
Plans are already in the works to expand the bridges built that day this coming summer with Virginia Theatre Festival, Gordon said, and to share the magic of the theatre once again.