PAINTING A BRIDGE TO BURMA

By Jennifer Nozawa, public relations specialist, College of Social Work

Nyan Soe and President David Pershing.

Nyan Soe and U President David Pershing.

Nyan Soe, a refugee from Burma (Myanmar), never imagined he’d be able to visit the United States.

From his new home in Thailand, Nyan Soe has been working with the University of Utah College of Social Work for the past eight years, helping connect U students, faculty and community partners with migrant communities living along the Thai/Burma border.  An artist and journalist, he volunteers his talent to help children in migrant schools in Thailand express their experiences and emotions through artwork, while also creating learning opportunities for U students.  In 2010, Nyan Soe asked Rosey Hunter, an associate professor in the College of Social Work, to bring one of his paintings back to the U.  He told her that although he would never see the University, he hoped his artwork could be displayed there.

But in March 2016, Nyan Soe landed in Salt Lake City.

Trinh Mai, Nyan Soe and Rosey Hunter

Trinh Mai, Nyan Soe and Rosey Hunter

The week before he arrived, social work students, faculty and staff were invited to reflect on a theme — Bridging Borders: Local to Global Connections — and share words, phrases, sketches, pictures and stories that captured that idea.  “Think about what this theme means to you,” directed Hunter. “How have you seen it reflected in your own experiences?” More than 50 people from the College of Social Work contributed their thoughts, helped develop sketches and — with the direction and assistance of Nyan Soe — put paint to canvas as they worked to develop a mural.

Over the course of two days, students and faculty took time between classes and meetings to add to the mural.  Images of origami cranes, smiling children, trees and people holding hands were included as meaningful symbols.

“The group played with powerful ideas and explored different forms of border crossing and bridging,” explained Trinh Mai, associate director of MSW field education at the College of Social Work.  “The zipper was Nyan Soe’s contribution.  It represents hope that we will work to close the gap between our local and global communities.”

In August, the mural was installed on the second floor of the College of Social Work’s Goodwill Humanitarian Building.  “The mural is inspiring,” said Mai, “because it is truly the product of a community coming together.”