How can someone know that they’re welcome in a new place? What can we do to tell them they are? In response to the current refugee crisis and harsh anti-refugee sentiments harbored and broadcasted by some Americans, Veda Partalo collaborated with Mike Davis and Wes Winship of Burlesque of North America to create a set of window stickers which will enable local businesses to create visibly welcoming environments for recent refugees. I spoke with Partalo and Davis about the process of creating these stickers, from initial ideas to design and distribution.
First, could tell me a little bit about yourselves—who you are, what you do?
Veda Partalo: I’m a refugee, a woman, and a terribly loyal person—loyal to family, friends, and to my sense of right and wrong. By day I am an advertising strategist in corporate America. I’m also an activist, a filmmaker, and a dog owner.
Mike Davis: I’m one of the owners of Burlesque of North America, a creative studio focusing on graphic arts and high quality screen printing. We do a lot of screen printed concert posters and art prints, and we also publish art prints for a pretty big variety of artists from all over the world.
Where did the idea for this project come from? How did you get the ball rolling?
Partalo: This Thanksgiving marked the 19th anniversary of my arrival to America. I came here with my mother and sister as a Bosnian refugee. Every year, in remembrance of our own arrival, we donate goods and money to the Immigration Center. This year, with the influx of refugees coming into Minnesota, I posted a call for extra donations on Facebook trying to get my friends to help as well. While most of the reactions were positive, I received hate mail. Really nasty stuff. And I remembered those first few years in Minnesota, and how harsh people could be.
It was in that moment that I realized something very essential: my family’s ability to integrate into American society had everything to do with how we were received upon our arrival. The more we felt welcome, the more we were able to contribute, the more we felt at home.
Because of this, I wanted the newest refugees in America to have a great sense of welcome. While there is a lot of vitriol online and in the media, I wanted to create a physical manifestation of the feeling of welcome in their day to day lives—I wanted to create safe zones within our community. Places refugees could feel accepted in. That’s when I reached out to Wes and Mike to create a welcome sign.
Wes, Mike, and I have worked together before. We shared a studio back in the Life Sucks Die magazine days, probably 15 years ago now. I love their work, and I love them as people. When I called Wes and said, “I’m tired of this anti-refugee BS. Can you help me make people feel welcome?” It only took a few minutes for us to agree to make a “Refugees Welcome” sign for businesses and homes. We both felt that it was important that the gesture was physical, not just digital. We wanted something that created a space of comfort and safety and appreciation for the newcomers.
Five minutes after our talk, Wes got a hold of Mike, and within a day Mike had a design in mind. Mike nailed it pretty much on the first try. Because Mike is seriously that good.
Davis: Over the last couple of years, Wes and I have been wanting to get into more socially conscious or socially aware projects, something that would allow us to use our design and screen-printing skills to make something beyond concert posters or advertisements. We just wanted to do something that would have a bigger message in the grand scheme of humanity. There’s a lot of crazy things happening in the world right now, and we talk about it a lot. Even if we may not do any actual design work to work towards fixing it, we’ll at least discuss it as we’re working on other stuff, so we’re both very aware of what’s happening in the world, and also right here in our own community in the Twin Cities.
We’ve always been wanting to get into more projects like this, but we can get overwhelmed by all of our day-to-day projects, so it can be hard for us to step back and say, “Alright. We’re going to do this.” So I think it really took Veda lighting fire under us, to be like, “Hey, I’m basically hiring you guys to work on this with me. How can we make it happen, and what do we need to do to get this out?”
It’s hard to tell just walking up and down the street and looking at someone: Do they know that I’m from a different country? Do they care? Are they threatened? Are they scared? So it’s nice to be able to just walk up to somewhere and to see an actual symbol or a sign that says, point blank, “Hey, you’re welcome here. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from. You’re human, come on in.”
Can you tell me more about the process of designing the sticker?
Davis: I wanted to create an image which was very simple and would be recognized by anybody and everybody. I’ve always liked the really stripped-down design of symbols and logos such as the ones you see at the airport for restrooms, food, gift shop, arrivals—the really basic symbols that anyone across the world can immediately recognize and know what to do when they see it. Our symbol should be just as simple, but also clearly say, “Refugee families are welcome here.”
My wife Mali is also from a refugee family. They moved to Minneapolis in the late 1970s after escaping the Secret War in Laos. She’s an artist and designer, and I ran my ideas past her for input and approval, since I knew this was a logo her family might have been looking for when they first arrived. I wanted to imply both a family and travel, but wanted to keep details to a minimum. I chose to keep the genders vague to just suggest “two adults, two children,” and I included the suitcase and backpack to suggest they had recently arrived from a long trip. Mali told me that a suitcase and backpack would have been luxury items for many refugee families, but I still felt it was a universally recognized symbol of travel, so I ended up keeping it in. I made sure to leave out any other frills or ornaments with the exception of the tiny zipper pull on the backpack.
What are your plans for distributing these, and getting people to display these in their windows?
Partalo: Our distribution method is simple: connecting with local friends who are business owners. And them reaching out to their friends. It’s purely grassroots and requires people to think about what sort of community they want to live in. What they want to stand for. Within minutes, we had an acupuncturist (Amy K Acupuncture), a donut shop (Glam Doll Donuts) and an ad agency (Mithun) raise their hands up and ask for the sticker. They were on board with what we wanted to say: refugees are welcome in our community.
Why stickers, and why shop windows? How does the form affect the message?
Davis: From the perspective of a business owner, quite simply, posters are huge. It can be a big, overwhelming statement. We just want something a little more subtle. You know when you walk into a shop and you see a small, little credit card sign on their window, like, “Hey, we accept Visa”? We just thought it would be a nice, small gesture that somebody can do without having to make a giant, big show out of it. Something subtle and simple and a little understated.
Partalo: There are a lot of words of encouragement online, and that’s great. Thing is, when you are completely new to a place, everything seems scary. The architecture is different, people speak a new language, the money doesn’t make any sense, you’re constantly lost on city transportation. Life is really hard the first few days, months, years. And you feel out of place and very alone. No one will stop a refugee on the street and say, “Hey there, welcome to America. I’m glad you’re here. How can I help you?” That just doesn’t happen.
But I wanted that feeling to occur, even if that conversation wasn’t going to. I wanted recent refugees to walk down the street and see a sign of welcome, a simple gesture that assured them that they would be treated with respect and care should they walk through the doors that carried our sign.
My goal is to make refugees feel welcome. It’s also to create a physical manifestation of that welcome, so we can become more comfortable saying it out loud.
Update: All stickers from the first print run have been distributed. To help pay for production costs on a second printing, consider buying a sticker set.