Using Art to Fundraise for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Vermont

multimedia waterfall
Waterfall. This image, done in ink, art marker, watercolor, and gouache, used a photo as a reference. I wanted to experiment with gouache for the first time and realized it would be really helpful for doing water effects (rather than trying to keep the paper white like in traditional watercolors). So, I found a photo and tried painting it. This took me about 3 days to do. Image credit: Deborah Sigel.

I love making a difference in the community and recently found an amazing way to use my artistic talents to make a real impact. I use art to fundraise for refugees and asylum seekers in Vermont by participating in two local Arts Marathons.

Last year, I participated in Central Vermont Refugee Action Network’s (CVRAN) March Arts Marathon and Chittenden Asylum Seekers Assistance Network’s (CASAN) Arts for Asylum Seekers fundraisers to support refugees and asylum seekers settling in Vermont.

When I originally heard about the CVRAN fundraiser three years ago, I was so excited to participate. Finally, a chance to do something I love while helping other people. While I started by just supporting CVRAN’s March Arts Marathon, this last year I added in CASAN’s new April Arts for Asylum Seekers marathon to make an ARTS ULTRAMARATHON! Both organizations are currently accepting new artists and sponsors for this year’s marathons. So if you’re a writer, artist, or hobbyist who wants motivation to do more of what you love, you can sign up to participate too. (You don’t need to be a professional artist to participate. I’m not a professional artist either.)

These organizations provide legal assistance and material support (housing, cookware, furnishings) for new refugees and asylum seekers in Vermont, enabling them to survive and stay in the U.S. For my part, I spent several hours each day for two months drawing an illustration a day to fundraise for refugees and asylum seekers. Much like a traditional marathon, I found sponsors who donated money, and in turn, they got to see my art daily and support a fantastic cause.

As the granddaughter of Eastern European refugees, I was so excited to finally find a way to give back financially to support new refugees to this country. It also gave me space to practice art daily. My art ultramarathon was an exhausting but rewarding experience that allowed me to see the growth that comes from investing time into a practice I already enjoy and want to improve on.

Refugees and asylum seekers face unfathomable challenges and barriers in their fight to find safety.

The legal system in the U.S. requires that an asylum seeker, who by definition is someone who is in fear of death in their home country and arrives with almost no money, pay to get legal paperwork to stay.

massive pile of paperwork
Image by Ag Ku from Pixabay

The paperwork filing can take up to 6 months to get processed, during which time they are not allowed to work in the country and get no governmental support.

During this time, agencies like CASAN and CVRAN can sponsor an asylum seeker (often pulling them out of immigration detention) and provide free legal services and living expenses, including essentials like winter clothing. If all goes well, after 6-18 months, the asylum seeker can be granted the right to stay and work in the US. These organizations raise funds for these services through everyday people like you and me.

The majority of my family were refugees who came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe just prior to and during World War II (during the Holocaust). Despite knowledge of the genocide that was happening to Jews and other minorities during the Holocaust, there were strictly enforced immigration limits in the U.S. to limit the number of Eastern European Jews from entering the country. My family was one of a very lucky few who made it into the U.S.

My grandmother’s brother escaped Austria through the Kindertransport program, a program that took a few children to escape by train to be adopted in the UK. As one of the older boys in the program, he was stuck in a situation where no one in the UK wanted to take him in (due to his age- big kids aren’t as adoptable). At the same time, his family in Austria expected him to find jobs for them (in war-torn, and highly ration-controlled England) so they could get papers to leave Austria.

In one of the last opportunities to leave Austria, my grandmother, her parents, and her other brother managed to get papers to the U.S., taking the place of other family members who decided to stay and didn’t survive. Once in the U.S., they were assisted by agencies that provided help for refugees until they could get on their feet. After some time, they were able to get jobs and eventually make enough money to bring my uncle over too. Even with the support from local agencies, it was not an easy time.

Because of the precariousness of the situation that my family and other refugees and asylum seekers went through, and hearing stories of how much harder it is to get into the US now, finding opportunities to support refugees and asylum seekers has always been very important to me.

My husband and I had an ongoing discussion about what we could do to help sponsor people who want to come and stay in the US. Up until now, there really wasn’t a clear path for us to take. The opportunity to support CVRAN, which is really efficient and effective at what they do, was a very natural fit for us.

In addition to getting to fundraise for refugees and asylum seekers, I love art marathons because they force me to do something fun that I would otherwise put off to do work.

I am not a professional artist with a degree from an arts school. I’m an engineer, who wishes she were an artist, and who creates different kinds of art for fun. We joke that being an engineer and artist allows me a chance to be an artist with less starving.

With the art marathons, I work on something artistic that is tangible and visible, and that I can look back on to see my progress, my successes, and my failures every day. It’s also a little scary because, to satisfy the agreement I made with my sponsors, I needed to produce something EVERY DAY, and I really wanted it to not stink. It makes it hard to try new media, new methods, and new ideas because they could fail. It’s uncomfortable to show the art I don’t consider to be my best work. But in the end, I had really awesome sponsors who loved seeing all of it–the good and the bad. It’s also exhausting because some days you just don’t have time for all the extra things, but you do it anyway.

This year, I mostly worked on illustrations with ink (from pens), grey markers for shading, and watercolor and gouache (an opaque watercolor) for color. Here are some of my favorite illustrations from this year’s marathons.

comet through a spaceship window- multimedia art
The Comet. Ink, art marker, watercolor, and gouache. Image credit: Deborah Sigel.

As a Trekie, I love space art. It’s actually really hard to do with all the black. Finally, I got something close.

cat in space- multimedia art
Cats in Space. Ink, art marker, and watercolor. Image credit: Deborah Sigel

And my daughter loves cats, so cats in space became a thing.

groundhogs using computers in their den- art in ink.
Groundhogs at the Office. Ink and art marker. Image credit: Deborah Sigel

Don’t you hate it when your coworker starts reading over your shoulder? Apparently, the problem plagues groundhog offices as well.

For my second marathon year, I decided to focus on illustrating a book, so that there was a tangible outcome from the event. I took a Front Porch Forum post titled “Beaver Has to Go” which was likely about beavers gnawing trees in someone’s yard, and turned it into the title of a board book about a beaver who has to pee. It may not have been as exciting for my sponsors, since I was drawing beavers every day, but I’m really proud of how it turned out.

Book cover for Beaver Has to Go
Beaver Has to Go, a new boardbook about a beaver who really needs to go to the bathroom. Image credit: Deborah Sigel
Inside Beaver Has to Go. Image credit: Deborah Sigel

I look forward to supporting these arts marathons again this year and wish good luck to all the new Vermonters who have been able to settle in more comfortably thanks to refugee and asylum seeker support networks like CASAN and CVRAN. If you are interested in participating as an artist (visual, audio, writing, etc.), or as a sponsor, check out their websites and sign up for the mailing lists. Artist registration for the CVRAN March Arts Marathon and CASAN Arts for Asylum Seekers are currently open, and sponsorship opportunities are too, so please check it out and help support refugees and asylum seekers today!

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Using Art to Fundraise for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Vermont

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Deborah Sigel
Deb is a mechanical engineering consultant, STEM educator, artist, and parent in the Burlington area. She is also the co-owner of the Vermont Idea Company. Deb has designed parts of Mars Rovers, astronaut tools, underwater robots, and eye implants that enable the blind to see. She has years of experience teaching fun hands-on STEM workshops and camps focusing on fundamentals of engineering (often by destroying things) and empowering kids to build their own giant creative things with tools. She currently teaches Arduino and Space Design courses to high school students at the Governor's Institute of Vermont. As an artist, she loves learning new ways to make things and integrating those new skills into her art. She dabbles in illustration, woodworking, silversmithing, sculpture, fabric, food, and more. In her free time, you can find her picking blueberries, inventing a new toy (like an interactive phone switchboard for her preschooler), or making kreplach and challah with her kids.


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