The one-day show at GVA featured pieces created by refugees living in camps

Published in the June 13 – 26, 2018 issue of Gilroy Life

Kayra Martinez, left, and Karen Musa, with some of the art at the Art Without Borders gallery show held at GVA Cafe June 3. * Photo by Marty Cheek

Two and a half years ago, Kayra Martinez was based in Germany for her job as a flight attendant when she traveled to Greece and saw the plight of the Serbian refugees. She felt so touched by the crisis that she started volunteering at the Nea Kavala Refugee Camp where 40,000 people — 40 percent of them children — were kept in tents behind fences.

That effort eventually brought a unique art show highlighting the creative talent of children and adult refugees to the South Valley June 3. The Art Without Borders special exhibit in the lounge at downtown Morgan Hill’s GVA Cafe was one of three Bay Area art shows and accompanying receptions presented by Martinez’s nonprofit organization Love Without Borders — For Refugees in Need.

“I started to work with the children through art because I saw that they have a lot of trauma they let out when they were drawing,” Martinez said of how the nonprofit began. “I started to bring in canvases and water colors for them to just create. There were no stipulations of what they had to draw. I just wanted it to be from the heart.”

Two paintings were put on Facebook and people asked if they were selling them. Martinez realized it was a way to raise money for the refugees. The group sold the art and gave 100 percent of the proceeds to the families.

“All of that money was used for food. I bought the mothers a cooking oven so that they could cook some as they lived in tents for almost two years,” she said. “During that time, we were able to support the families. I started a program to take the families out of the camps and place them into homes. We needed to create awareness, and this (art sales) is how I thought we could help the people.”

The one-day exhibit featured pieces of artwork created by refugees who are currently living in camps and housing communities in Greece. The art program from which these pieces were generated has been featured on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt. The paintings and watercolors tell the stories of people who often lack a voice.

Martinez founded Love Without Borders — For Refugees in Need in 2015 after she grew more aware of the growing crisis and started working with Non-Government Organizations to see how she could help. Because she speaks German, she could translate and help distribute clothes, but she wanted to do more. She started visiting other countries that had become landing spots for these involuntary immigrants, such as Austria, Hungary, and Serbia, where borders were still open to refugees. When she arrived in Greece, she was shocked at the desperate need for aid.

“People living in the streets, in tents,” she said. “Vulnerable people, with no structure.”

She returned to Greece on a regular basis, mostly working in Camp Nea Kavala, located in northern Greece near the Macedonian border.

“I discovered that there was a large gap between the NGOs and people. The one-on-one with people was completely missing,” Martinez said.

In an already chaotic situation, keeping families together was an added challenge. Men often went off to find work. Mothers from the tents would have to stand in line for food for so long that the food would sometimes spoil. Martinez understood their frustration of not being able to provide for their families. So, she began her organization. It grew to encompass multiple projects.

“I started taking calligraphy paper and crayons into the tents,” she said. “I saw how calm the children were when they were drawing. And the subject matter was impactful. When I first started, they were drawing the Aegean Sea in red, stick figure bodies that were upside down, lots of black. There was a lot of trauma there.”

Art provided a medium for working through and overcoming that trauma. “I started a year and a half ago,” she said. “Now their works are colorful, reflecting love and hope, rather than the dark, terrible times they went through.” Artists range in age from three years old to adults.

At one point, Martinez would bring 10 to 15 children and their families to her home to create art. In the beginning, it was something to take their minds off the struggles of their daily lives. But she realized those art sessions could serve another purpose.

One day, Martinez decided to put some art on a canvas and offer it for sale. As a flight attendant, she had connections throughout the world. She sent canvases to Norway, Sweden, and the U.S. The resulting sales helped provide funding for supplies and allow the refugees to continue creating art. The shows now allow these families to generate income, and help provide medical exams and other necessities.

Connie Ludewig, a resident of San Martin, community activist, and member of the San Martin Chamber of Commerce, helped out at GVA Café’s gallery show. “I am thrilled for the opportunity to bring awareness about the lives and needs of the families who left everything for a chance for safety in a foreign land, Greece. This is such an important humanitarian story,” she said.

She reached out to Renee Carillo, the owner of GVA Café, who generously offered the space for the show.

Vicki Trapalis, a dependency attorney in San Francisco representing foster children, spent a year volunteering in one of the Greek camps. She’s already been back once and plans to return for a few months this summer. As the event coordinator, she said, “I became interested in having the Refugee Art shows in the Bay Area while I was in Greece and preparing for my return home. It was a way to stay connected to the work in Greece, to shed light on this humanitarian crisis, and to provide a way for people to help locally and have an impact globally.”

The GVA show included sketches, acrylics on canvas, watercolors on canvas from the children, calligraphy, and photography. Martinez estimated the show represented about 60 different artists from 10 different countries. Prices ranged from $25 to $350.

“Putting the shows together is a lot of work, but so worth the efforts,” Trapalis said. “Kayra’s program has provided such huge opportunities to so many talented refugee artists — providing them a venue to showcase their work, earn some money, and have their voices heard through their art has impacted their lives tremendously.”

For Martinez, the opportunities and the struggles continue.

“I’m challenged every day, especially being in Greece,” she said. “But the reason I started these projects is to help refugees. These projects are successful and keep me motivated. I see big changes in families, with fathers able to stay and support their families.”

Donna Lane

Donna Lane

Donna Lane is a storyteller and San Jose native who earned her journalism degree at San Francisco State University. She lives in Gilroy with her family, who inspire her to celebrate life each day.
Donna Lane