A lot happened in 2019.

As news cycles flitted between mass shootings, impeachment and Iran, 69,550 migrant children were separated from their parents and detained by the U.S. government, according to a fact sheet released by the Department of Health and Human Services in November.

In May, a story from the border — the death of a 16-year-old boy named Carlos who died of the flu seven days after he was detained by border patrol — made headlines and reignited conversations about family separation and human rights violations.

Hearing the news, an engineer from Virginia channeled her grief and frustration into an ongoing art project that is raising awareness about the experiences of detained children.

“I, as a typical privileged American, had assumed that since we’re not talking about it, we don’t still have kids in cages, right?” said, Amanda, the artist. “If I can forget about this so quickly, what chance do we have of staying focused on this?”

To keep the issue in the public eye, Amanda, whose artist name is Juuust Amanda, decided to paint a picture and post it on social media every day until no more children are held in detention centers. Her images accompany quotes from the imprisoned children that describe their hunger, sickness, fear and longing.

WORDS FROM CHILDREN

“My dad is the other half of my heart,” reads a quote from 9-year old Ervin from Guatemala. In the image, a boy buries his face into his father’s shoulder as they hug.

Amanda opened her first gallery showing on Saturday evening with 75 paintings on display at the Art House in Goshen.

Since she posted her first painting online in July, Amanda has been surprised to learn how many other people feel powerless to stop the problem, she said.

In the first three days of posting paintings, Amanda gained 2,000 Twitter followers. Today she has more than 18,000.

PART OF NATIONAL EFFORT

Her work responds to a call to action from Warren Binford of Project Amplify, a national campaign seeking to win legal protections for detained children by sharing the children’s stories and quotes.

Angel Reyes, who grew up in Goshen but now lives in South Texas, was taken by the decorations that accompanied Amanda’s art.

The decorations were the work of Larry Crump, the Art House board member who pitched Amanda’s paintings to the board and spent $1,500 and countless hours preparing the gallery for the show, he said.

He built wooden frames for all 75 of Amanda’s paintings and installed more than 40 feet of chain link fence to line the gallery walls. He bought emergency blankets like the ones issued the children in detention centers ($7 buys four on amazon), and hung them around the gallery. The blankets are paper-thin, noisy and slightly sticky to the touch.

Crump placed two toilets in plain view of the gallery, invoking the lack of privacy afforded to detained migrants when they need to relieve themselves.

“Artistically speaking, it’s brilliantly done,” said Reyes, who described the combination of the children’s words, Amanda’s art and Crump’s additions as “heart-wrenching.”

“It hit me like a left hook,” he said.

THE GALLERY CROWD

Later, Crump fought back tears as he introduced the speakers of the evening to an audience of 60 in the Art House theater.

Amanda spoke first, urging attendees to think about this crisis in the eyes of history.

“We like to talk about what we would have done during Japanese internment, or what we would have done during the Native Americans being sent off to boarding schools, and whatever we would have done is what we’re doing now,” she said.

Peter Claassen, a legal supervisor at the Goshen office of the National Immigrant Justice Center, said people need to educate themselves about what’s happening. One way to do that is to make relationships with immigrants in our community and learn their stories, he said.

Julia Schmidt, Immigrant Resources Coordinator for the Center for Healing and Hope, also stressed the importance of making relationships and building trust with the local immigrant population.

In the long journey toward justice for detainees, Amanda doesn’t see herself as the person to write a ground-breaking policy or run for office, she said.

“My role is visibility,” Amanda said. “If I get what I want, it’s that people won’t look away.”

The gallery is open for viewing at the Art House on 211 S. Main St. on the second floor until March 31.

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