An innovative effort looks to empower Cincinnati refugees and boost Camp Washington

The endeavor, simply called Welcome, is helmed by Wave Pool gallery and refugee aid organization Heartfelt Tidbits.

click to enlarge Sheryl Rajbhandari (second from right) admires wallpaper designed by refugee women alongside workshop participants and volunteers at Wave Pool gallery. - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
Sheryl Rajbhandari (second from right) admires wallpaper designed by refugee women alongside workshop participants and volunteers at Wave Pool gallery.
Once a week, Krishna Ghimire goes to a gallery in a converted Camp Washington firehouse to make art with other women from around the world.

Ghimire came here eight years ago from refugee camps in Nepal. Other women in the group came from countries like Mexico, Guatemala, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Congo as refugees or immigrants. Refugee aid organization Heartfelt Tidbits and Camp Washington art gallery Wave Pool organize the group of 20 women and about as many teens in a separate workshop to celebrate skills they bring from their home countries, help build friendships and empower them to express themselves across language barriers. 

Now, as political uncertainty and harsh rhetoric surround immigrants and refugees in Cincinnati and across the country in the age of Trump, the two nonprofits are taking their partnership to the next level — and boosting activity in a sometimes-overlooked Cincinnati neighborhood in the process.

A storefront across the street from Wave Pool run by two Guatemalan immigrants will open April 30, giving refugees like Ghimire a place to sell their art and keep the proceeds. In the building’s other storefront, a café run by a Syrian refugee will begin serving tea, pastries and lunch sometime later this year. Above both, Wave Pool and Heartfelt Tidbits are working together on a long-term plan to offer affordable apartments for refugee families. 

Heartfelt Tidbits founder Sheryl Rajbhandari and Wave Pool’s Cal Cullen have a simple name for the endeavor — “Welcome.” The idea is to provide those coming to the city from fraught, often war-torn places a place to feel valued and work toward self-sufficiency. The café, for example, will employ refugees and immigrants through a training program that will feed into permanent jobs at area restaurants, utilize produce from Turner Farm, where many refugees garden, and provide an after-hours incubation space for those looking to start their own catering businesses and restaurants.

“It won’t really be a Heartfelt Tidbits thing or a Wave Pool thing,” Rajbhandari says. “It will be its own business, and we’ll just be heavily engaged.” 

Since 2014, more than 800 refugees have come to Cincinnati, resettled via a partnership between the U.S. State Department and Greater Cincinnati Catholic Charities. Like Ghimire, about half of those refugees have been Bhutanese. 

Ghimire came to Cincinnati from refugee camps in Nepal, fleeing ongoing oppression in her native country. She knows her way around a loom — she’s an expert weaver who spent more than a decade in the camps weaving dresses, shawls and other items. She still enjoys weaving, though her favorite medium these days is beadwork. Recently, Cincinnati art collector Sara Vance Waddell commissioned from Ghimire a blue and silver piece that reads “art matters.” It’s one of several pieces Ghimire has sold. 

“It’s a good idea, because it’s bringing people together, and getting people from different countries talking,” Ghimire said of Welcome as she sat with other workshop participants, Cullen and Rajbhandari in Wave Pool last month mulling over logos for the project. 

“Before, I just stayed in my house all day,” said another participant who will play an integral role in Welcome. She asked not to be identified due to anxieties about her status as an immigrant. “It feels like, at this time, people don’t really like immigrants. I’m really happy I’ve gotten to know these people. Now I feel more free. Like I’ve made a lot of friends.” 

Beyond the warm feelings the effort has engendered, Cullen and Rajbhandari have been wrestling with the nuts and bolts of a project unlike anything else in the city. They’ve been searching out grants that could better fund the endeavor long-term and hustling for donations of cash, kitchen equipment like an oven and refrigerator and tablet computers for the retail portion of the project.

The space that will soon hold Welcome needs work. On a gloomy Monday morning in February, Cullen and Rajbhandari took stock of the defunct corner store on Colerain Avenue that will soon feature the women’s art. Peeling paint, fading soda bottles and other holdovers littered the store, and an odd poster or two still clung to the walls. But the two see beyond the cleanup needed to a bigger vision informed by the years of work they’ve already done.

Rajbhandari began working with refugees in 2008 and founded Heartfelt Tidbits as a nonprofit in 2010. The almost entirely volunteer group has helped hundreds of refugees since then. Heartfelt has focused on Bhutanese refugees, who have been coming to Cincinnati for about a decade, but also works with any refugee family in need, focusing on what it calls the long welcome — the months after the U.S. State Department’s 90 days of financial aid runs out, but before a family has reached self-sufficiency in their new country. 

While Rajbhandari brings her wealth of experience working with various refugee communities, Cullen and her husband Skip bring a track record of frenetic work in Camp Washington. 

The two have been moving seemingly nonstop since they bought and renovated the old firehouse on Colerain Avenue and opened the gallery in early 2015. Since then, Wave Pool has hosted a dizzying array of programs — from standard gallery shows to forums on the intersection of art and community issues to an artist in residency program. 

The Cullens in late December bought the building that will house Welcome, envisioning it as a place to expand Wave Pool’s mission of mixing art with community work.

Camp Washington leaders have taken notice and say they’re excited to watch the pair’s latest endeavor take shape. 

“Cal and Skip have been amazing partners,” says long-time Camp Washington community organizer Joe Gorman, who currently acts as director of the Camp Washington Community Board. “Wave Pool has been very good about bringing new people into the neighborhood, and subsequently they’ve really inspired some people to invest here.

“The past owner didn’t do much on the building in terms of upkeep,” Gorman says of the future Welcome space. “Through this project, they’ll renovate the apartments for refugees, who will come in and work.”

Cal Cullen says the housing portion of the plan is “more of a long-term project.” The building has eight studio or one-bedroom apartments, which will be renovated over time. 

Gorman says the Board could become the fiscal agent for the project if necessary. Both Heartfelt Tidbits and Wave Pool are nonprofits, but the goal is for Welcome Home to become a stand-alone, self-sustaining entity.

Gorman sees the lower-level storefronts as a way to boost Camp Washington’s business district along Colerain Avenue and views Welcome, as well as Wave Pool, as part of a larger resurgence in the neighborhood of about 1,500 mostly urban Appalachian residents. Gorman cites other big efforts around Camp Washington — the work to renovate the historic Crosley building, more galleries popping up and a coffee shop coming soon — as signs that more people are starting to take an interest in the neighborhood.

The project’s impact will extend beyond Camp Washington. The nonprofits are setting up a separate workshop at Tikkun Farms, near where many of the refugee women live in Mount Healthy, so they can work on their art beyond Wave Pool’s Monday morning sessions. Art made by English language learners and other students at Education Matters, a nonprofit in Lower Price Hill, will also be featured in the store, Cullen and Rajbhandari say.

The core of the effort, they say, circles back to the mission of the original Wave Pool art workshops.

“The friendship building and the language learning are the key parts,” Rajbhandari says. “And making people feel good.” ©

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