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Alumnus Hopes to Bridge Cultural Gap With Art

Sirois '01 Featured in Urbanite, City Paper, Marc Steiner radio interview

Posted 11.30.10 by mica communications

Justin Sirois ’01 (left) and Haneen Alshujairy

When Justin Sirois graduated from MICA in 2001, the printmaking major pursued graphic design, but found himself slowly becoming fascinated with a different form of art--fiction.

That fascination led him to start a series of creative projects, including one that examined life for Middle Eastern refugees of the Iraq War. "I was specifically interested in the two sieges of the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004," Sirois said. "I wanted to know more about the personal cost and the civilian side of those two battles."

That led Sirois to interview Iraqi refugees. In the process, he met Haneen Alshujairy, a 21-year-old who fled Baghdad in 2003 with her family and now lives in Cairo. Through their correspondence, Sirois learned that Americans and Iraqis aren't so different. "We all want the same things," he said.

They began working on literary projects together, and after finishing a novel and a book of short stories, they decided about a year ago that the world could benefit from looking beyond cultural differences. They launched the Understanding Campaign, which asks everyone in the world to learn one word of Arabic, the word Fhm, which literally means "understanding."

READ: Urbanite profiles the campaign in October
City Paper Best of Baltimore issue names Understanding Campaign as Best Campaign
Marc Steiner Show interviewed Sirois and Alshujairy on Oct. 18

"If you learn this one word, then that's an avenue for you to learn more about a culture that's marginalized," Sirois said. They surpassed their goal of raising $10,000, the money needed to start a nonprofit that will further promote cross-cultural understanding. In addition, they have been recognized for their efforts by celebrities, such as artist Yoko Ono and actor William H. Macy.

"Art inspires other people to get involved," Sirois said, adding that people also feel like they are part of something bigger when they have a visual representation of the word. "People write me testimonials about wearing a sticker or button in public and people asking them what it means, and they ended up creating an instant friendship from that one dialog."

Sirois' time at MICA helped prepare him for this endeavor. "A lot of the classes I took fostered collaboration. That's a big thing-interdisciplinary collaboration between different artists-that's key," he said.

Once enough money has been raised, the nonprofit will find ways to bring resources to the Middle East, potentially partnering with other organizations. "If I can create the same experience that I had with Haneen for other people, where they can collaborate artistically with someone in the Middle East and have it be a powerful experience, then I'm happy," he said of his definition of success with the campaign.

For more information on the campaign, click here.