Dreams Unfolding

Exploring Storytelling and Identity among Refugee Youth

Photo by Steve Aderton


  • Katie Mansfield, Lead Trainer for the STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience) program at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite University
  • Mary Ann Zehr, Writing and Communication Program Director at Eastern Mennonite University
  • Church World Service Harrisonburg Immigration & Refugee Services
  • James Madison University
  • Eastern Mennonite University
  • Harrisonburg-Rockingham Community Services Board


Project Overview

Dreams Unfolding was a 6‑week summer arts workshop for high school students from refugee backgrounds that empowered participants to give voice to their own story and share their cultural identity. Participants shaped their story through open-ended writing prompts, strengthened their visual storytelling skills through photographic collage, and expressed their fluid cultural identities through movement and dance. The images and writing became an exhibit that showcased a change in the life of the artist.

The workshop focused on three prompts that centered around a change—in physical location, state of mind, or life circumstance—in the life of the participant artist. The prompts were designed to be intentionally open, allowing each participant to determine what facet of their story they wanted to focus on. Each participant began with the prompt, “In the beginning of this story…” encouraging them to think, “What was life like before? Where did this story begin?” The beginning could be before moving to the U.S., before moving to Harrisonburg, before becoming a teenager, or before discovering basketball, for example. The next prompt was, “And then there was a change.” This prompt focused on a crossing or movement, a changing of location, mindset, or circumstance. Each participant decided for themselves what change they wanted to focus on, in the context of their own story. The third prompt was, “A dream is now unfolding.” Here each participant had the chance to outline how that change had manifested in their lives, and what dreams were emerging as a result.

During the final public exhibit of their work participants shared personal stories of change and transition, inviting community members to reflect on the diverse experiences and complex personal identities present in this city. Participants also explored higher education and arts careers.


2024 Bronze Anthem Award in the Local Community Engagement—Education, Art & Culture category

2024 Communicator Award of Excellence in the Innovation & Strategic Achievement—Social Impact category

Selected Work


Collaborator Feedback

For a second time Elisabeth Kvernen has designed and implemented incredible artistic programming for refugee youth in the greater Harrisonburg community. Professor Kvernen is excellent at bringing diverse groups of people together to participate in art as community creation.  She is nimble in adjusting the artistic vision to seamlessly fit with the reality of co-creation in a community setting. 

—Rebecca Sprague, Youth & Employment Program Coordinator at Church World Service Harrisonburg Immigration & Refugee Services