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Woven Dreams: Quilt project unifies stories of varied pasts

Celeste Portillo knows how to sew. She had watched her grandma in Guatemala use a sewing machine and make clothes.

But for 15 years, she didn't know her mother, who had moved to the United States. She didn't know her two younger brothers. She knew pain.

While in Guatemala, Celeste’s father had hurt her. Celeste’s aunt noticed the fresh scars on her arms, and she called Celeste's mother.

Mom came 'home,' Celeste met her mother for the first time since she was a young baby. Yet she had no hesitation to move to the states with her mom.

Now Celeste is a senior and English Language Learner (ELL) student at Lincoln High School. She's telling her story.

One quilt block at a time.

* * * * *

The idea of The Quilted Conscience is to connect students, their memories and their dreams - with quilting as the common thread. Volunteers bring extra sewing skills and a pair of listening ears. The stories they hear are a crocheted memory bank of pain, loss, love and hope.

"I have had more fun than I ever expected," volunteer Lynne O'Rourke said. "These kids are phenomenal, they are so interesting."

"These kids are phenomenal, they are so interesting."

The classroom has expanded beyond the walls of Lincoln High. The International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in fact, is the perfect host for this project. The staff know quilts and were actively involved in the workshop.

Jen Deets, an art teacher at LHS, sees first-hand the four components of art curriculum in this project: create, respond, connect and present.

"Obviously these ELL students have these incredible stories to tell; I didn't even anticipate that. Thinking about those memories and the pain they expressed, and how they used that in their quilts have been amazing."

The students also write a statement for each quilt block, preserving the memories and hopes with more than thread.

Everyone learns more than what curriculum might allow. The students expand their skills and practice to what they've learned in school.

The volunteers learn about resiliency.

"They have come from some of the most hellish situations, and they sit and giggle with each other," O'Rourke said. "They are amazing. Like any groups of kids, they are so varied in their experiences, but certainly things I would have never experienced in my lifetime.

"I grew up in Lincoln. What did I know?"

* * * * *

Fahad Naïf has been in the United States for five months, in Lincoln for four.

What he witnessed in Iraq is burned in his memories, and led to his fleeing for refuge in a new country, one he could only dream of before.

"For me, when I was in Iraq, it was my dream to come one day to the U.S." he said. "I can't achieve my dream here, from Iraq."

"For me, when I was in Iraq, it was my dream to come one day to the U.S." he said. "I can't achieve my dream here, from Iraq.

"I miss my motherland, I miss my community, and I worry about them because the situation is very bad."

One day, he wants to be an engineer. One day, he wants to bring peace. Today, he's sewing his story into the fabric of his school community.

"I am interested by the quilt because I will share my message with the world."

* * * * *

When complete the quilt will feature various stories of these students from around the world.

Iraq, Burma, Thailand, Venezuela, Guatemala, Congo.

They share painful memories.

They share life-changing dreams.

They share a classroom.

"The idea is that people who don't normally have an opportunity will meet immigrant or refugee families that have moved to Lincoln," Hertzler said. "I'm an ELL teacher; I get to do it every day. If we create opportunities to meet, hang out and listen to each others’ stories, we discover how alike we are, as opposed to our differences."

The space here has threads and needles, laughs and giggles, conversations and questions.

It doesn’t erase bad memories, but it helps build relationships, improve language skills and sense a pathway for hope.

For Hertzler, she is inspired every day. She’s glad the volunteers get to see what she sees.

“It warms my heart to see them get to experience the things I get to every day,” she said.

“It warms my heart to see them get to experience the things I get to every day,” she said. “It's a time commitment for them, so they are making a choice about reaching out to immigrants and families that are new to Lincoln.”

And strengthen the quilt with threads and stories from around the world to be unveiled soon.


Published: March 14, 2017, Updated: March 14, 2017

I am interested by the quilt because I will share my message with the world.

Fahad Naïf

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