Painted Stories of Migration


By Katherine Fobear

Artists and Facilitators

Mira Ghattas
Zdravko Cimbaljevic
Alex Winter
Isreal Motta
Melanie Schambach
Katherine Fobear
Emma Kim
Hiram Oliveros
Salvador Ramirez

And four others who wish to keep their names confidential

Exhibit Film

Introduction to Exhibit 

Painted Stories of Migration is a community painting and filmmaking project created for and led by lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer (LGBTQ) refugees living in Metro Vancouver. Painted Stories of Migration works to empower LGBTQI refugee voices and place their experiences at the center of public attention through a series of storytelling, painting, and filmmaking workshops.

The project was guided by an anti-oppression and community-­leadership approach in which participants received training in community leadership as well as technical training in digital and visual storytelling. Five LGBTQ refugees received training on group facilitation and anti-oppression education. These five then facilitated a five-week painting, storytelling, and filmmaking workshop with ten other LGBTQ refugees. The end result was the “We Are All Humans” mural and the “Seeking Protection is Not a Crime” short film. These two works provide a critical counter-narrative to xenophobic and racist depiction of asylum seekers in Canada. Through the use of painting and film, multiple and diverse voices and experiences of asylum and settlement in Canada were brought to the forefront. These diverse voices challenged the single story of a refugee and instead showed how race, sexuality, gender, class, and ability intersect into their lives.

Images Photocredit: Melanie Schambach


Quotes from Participants

“I enjoyed every single moment of the project. I felt warm and good with people surrounding me. And it felt good that we did art by our own hands and ideas. I learned a lot. Every time I was there I learned new things, mostly how to be strong, how to encourage yourself, and stand up for yourself. Encouraged me for a better life. It felt great to be there with other people like me. Even if I was down I made it to workshop and felt awesome. I realized we deserve to be happy.” --Herlen

“It was hard to remember everything that happened to me and get connected to memories from the past. The good thing was that there were tools that made us work on bad memories and take control of them. Confront our fears. It was healing. I enjoyed a sharing my time with people who passed through similar situations like I did.”— “C”

“I never painted before, so this was a good occasion to learn how to paint. Also, it helped me to understand the process of painting: put ideas together, consider any suggestions, combine any thoughts and illustrate on the banner. Through this experience I had the chance to meet great people and I am very close to them now. The main accomplishment is the fact that we expressed our selves by painting no matter where we coming from.”—“L”

“It was confusing at first because I thought we were just going to paint. But now I understand why we had to go through all the sessions. I think we could paint amazingly because of the sessions and I really enjoyed everything. I enjoyed sharing opinions about our thoughts and experiences. I learnt we are all the same. We are no different because we are refugees. We are all just humans.”—Emma

“I found it very helpful to work in a team setting. I also really enjoyed meeting new people and the activities and games we played. Everyone was very helpful by translating and explaining the project to me because my English is not very strong. It helped me to be more open to speak about my life and the difficulties I faced as a gay person. It was challenging for me to speak about my experience as a gay refugee because I have never been in an environment where people could openly share their stories, challenges, and life experiences. But as the project progressed, I was more comfortable with the other members and felt that I could be more trusting and open in sharing my views”—Vahid

Art as Resistance

The Painted Stories project was designed in collaboration with Rainbow Refugee and the Pride in Art Society to provide LGBTQ refugees a platform to share their stories and bring their voices to the center of immigration discourse in Canada. Art helps to articulate the inarticulable and creates greater opportunities for understanding and empathy. Art also allows participants to challenge one-dimensional and stereotypical images of refugees that label them as only victims or outsiders.

During the five week painting and storytelling workshops, participants and facilitators created a mural of Monarch butterflies as a symbol of their migration to Canada. The Monarch Butterfly must travel long distances in order to breed and begin a new generation. In its journey, the Monarch Butterfly crosses the US/Mexico border, a place where many refugees die and are deported. It is a symbol of beauty as well as a challenge to border imperialism.

The participants and facilitators chose the symbol of the Monarch butterfly as a counter point to the negative depiction of refugees in Canada as being “bogus,” “illegal,” and a threat Canada’s security and resources. The Monarch butterfly is a testament to the creativity, bravery, and tenacity that refugees display in their survival against oppressive odds. Like the Monarch Butterfly, the participants needed to journey long distances and cross national borders to live without fear of state and societal persecution.

The final mural has two titles chosen by the participants: “We are all humans” and “Migration is always difficult, don’t make it more difficult”. The LGBTQ refugee participants and the facilitators wanted to show their authority as advocates as well as fully capable actors with diverse interests, desires, and needs. Within each of the butterflies, the facilitators and participants painted different messages that show the complexity of LGBTQ refugee lives. All of these different butterflies were intermixed so that you could not look at one without looking at another, challenging the single narrative of what it means to be a refugee.

The Painted Stories Project would like to thank community artist and activist Melanie Schambach and activist Mira Ghattas for their coordination and assistance to the project. Without their passion and drive this project would never have come into fruition. A sincere thank you to Alex Winter, Zdravko Cimbaljevic, and Isreal Motta who served as facilitators. You made this project much better than we could ever imagine. Thank you to all of the participants for their time and commitment to this project. Your voices continue to inspire us all.

Funders and Information about Organizations Involved

Painted Stories of Migration is collaboration between Rainbow Refugee Members, PeerNet, and The Pride in Art Society with generous support by the Liu Institute for Global Issues, The Vancouver Foundation, and the Barbara Roberts Memorial Prize.

Katherine Fobear served as a co-coordinator to the Painted Stories project. Katherine is a queer scholar and activist whose work revolves around LGBTQ refugee settlement in North America. She is a PhD Candidate at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice. Katherine uses participatory photography, oral history, and community-based art projects to explore LGBTQ refugees’ stories of settlement. Through storytelling and art Katherine works with LGBTQ refugees and newcomers to share their story and fight for social justice. Katherine’s current research involves the settlement experiences of LGBTQ refugees in North America. Using participatory photography and oral history, Katherine explores how LGBTQ refugees create a sense of home and belonging in Vancouver. In addition to her research, Katherine is an active volunteer with Rainbow Refugee and assists LGBTQ refugee claimants in their refugee process and settlement in Vancouver. Katherine has held several community events and workshops around LGBTQ refugees and newcomers.
For more information about the Painted Stories Project Please look here:

Rainbow Refugee

Queer Arts Festival

Melanie Schambach’s website


Creative Commons License
Painted Stories of Migration by Katherine Fobear and the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License