An exhibition featuring the experiences of southeast Asian refugees curated by a professor from Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) is currently featured in the Manitoba Museum’s Festival Hall. Run by the Hearts of Freedom project, the exhibition, entitled Hearts of Freedom: Stories of Southeast Asian Refugees, focuses on refugees to Canada during the 1970s and 80s.
The Hearts of Freedom project was founded by members of the Vietnamese community in Canada. The organization soon expanded to include the Laotian and Cambodian communities, as all were affected by the Vietnam War.
Stephanie Phetsamay Stobbe, a professor of conflict resolution studies at CMU and member of Hearts of Freedom, is the curator of the travelling exhibition.
Stobbe said Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian people “were part of the mass exodus of people from their home countries, as a result of the violence and persecution that they were experiencing and the lack of freedom in those countries.”
Stobbe and her team spoke with 173 individuals across Canada, conducting interviews in five languages: English, French, Vietnamese, Laotian and Khmer.
“Many of them said that this was the first time that they have ever told their stories,” she said.
“They wanted to be able to share this with their children, as well as their grandchildren, and share it with their communities here in Canada.”
Stobbe emphasized the importance of the project for her, as her own family came to Canada as refugees.
“I came to Canada as a young child, and have experienced warfare, displacement, resettlement and settlement,” she said, “and I really connected to the different people we interviewed for this project.”
Early discussions about the project began in 2015 and it received funding in 2018. Interviews for the project began in 2019 and were completed in 2021. The majority of the interviewees were former refugees, but also included government officials — including former prime minister Joe Clark — and other sponsors of the organization.
Eventually, Stobbe decided to create a travelling exhibition based on the project.
“I wanted to bring it back to the communities, to the people who we interviewed across Canada, so that they can share with their families and friends, and with their communities,” she said.
Stobbe hopes that in the future, the exhibit will find a permanent home in Canada. These stories and issues are “still very important and relevant today,” she said, due to the continuing problems of war and displacement.
“We need to really continue to look at these issues and looking at ways we can help refugees,” said Stobbe. She said that with recent refugees in Canada, it is important to look at the services they need to help them integrate to their new country and overcome language barriers.
She said that it is important to “highlight the positive stories of integration and the contributions that these former refugees and their descendants are making” in Canada.
After finishing the exhibition in January of 2023, it was launched at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, QC. The Hearts of Freedom exhibition has been travelling across the country since.
The Hearts of Freedom exhibition will remain at the Manitoba Museum from Jan. 5 to April 7. To get tickets please visit my.manitobamuseum.ca