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Refugee women tell their stories with photos in picture.me.here

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The woman in the photo is Pabrita Niroula's mother-in-law. She and Pabrita came to Colorado from Nepal, where they lived in a refugee camp and slept on hard bamboo beds.

In January, Pabrita was one of eight Bhutanese women given a digital camera and asked to document her life as a refugee for a photo exhibit called picture. me. here. Pabrita told the project's facilitators that she took the photo because her mother-in-law looked peaceful -- a feeling that was sometimes elusive in their home country. "It made her feel so good to know her mother-in-law was able to rest on something so comfortable and soft," says Kristen Damron, the women's programs coordinator for Lutheran Family Services.

The exhibit opens tonight at 7 p.m. at Platte Forum. Tickets to the opening party are $25; the proceeds benefit a refugee women's craft cooperative called A Little Something.

The idea for the show came from Damron's co-worker, who read about a similar project in a magazine. "It sparked the idea for her that, wouldn't it be awesome if we could get some of our ladies together and have them tell these stories of their lives through pictures?" Damron says. Damron runs women's groups for Lutheran Family Services, one of a few local agencies that provide services for refugees -- people fleeing their countries because of persecution war or violence -- when they arrive in Colorado. (About 2,000 come each year.)

Reaching out to refugee women is important because they often don't have much education or speak English, she says; most have never held a job. "They're the ones raising the kids and running the household," Damron explains. "If you can build up and empower these women, it will dramatically change the course of their lives and their families.

"Oftentimes, women in the refugee world are quite overlooked as far as stories, passions, dreams and fears," she notes, "and I try my very best to give them the opportunity to share."

This project does just that. From January to May, the women met once a week with two professional photographers, Brigid McAuliffe and Erin Preston, who volunteered to teach them basic photography skills. The refugees started off with fifteen hand-me-down cameras, only three of which are still working. Most of the women had never held a camera before, let alone used one to document their lives, Damron says.

There were other challenges, too. Language was one of the biggest; since the project had no funding, it was hard to get actual translators. Most of the time, the photographers were reliant on the women's children to translate for them.

"Not up until the end did they understand the whole nature of the project," Damron says of the refugees. "They understood they were going out and taking pictures and having fun, but they didn't realize that people would come and see their art."

The exhibit includes about eighty photographs taken by the women. Most feature everyday things: bus stops, car washes, family members. Nearly every photo has a story to go with it. "Even though a picture might seem simple, there's usually a very personal meaning behind it, compared to the life they left behind," Damron says.

The refugee photographers will be at tonight's event to participate in a question-and-answer session about the project. There will also be live music, crafts for sale from A Little Something and video footage of the refugee photographers in action. Organizers have asked that attendees RSVP to beadwomen@gmail.com.

Prints of the photos will be for sale for the duration of the show, with 65 percent of the proceeds going to the photographers; the rest of the money will go to A Little Something. The exhibit will be up until June 1 at the Platte Forum.

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