The fledgling nonprofit ARTogether, founded by Leva Zand, provides art and craft classes for refugees and is growing quickly.
Leva Zand is not an artist.
But the healing, unifying power of the arts has always been obvious to her. The struggles and trauma her family experienced in their refugee journey from Iran in 2004, when she was 23, were far from unique, she knew. What refugees miss more than anything, she realized, was the sense of connection and community they’d had in their homelands. Her family belongs to the Baha’i faith, which considers art “a gift of the holy spirit.”
The Baha’i have been persecuted in Iran since the 1979 revolution, said Zand, eventually motivating her family to leave their homeland. After her family’s flight, they settled in Sacramento. Zand received her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Sacramento State, and her master’s in feminist studies from UC Santa Barbara, then began working back east, first in Washington, D.C. In 2015, she resettled in the East Bay, but continued to work for the Boston’ Nonviolent Initiative for Democracy, where she helped create an online school for women in rural Iran who wanted to become involved in politics.
“The 2016 election was a turning point for me,” Zand said. “I first experienced a kind of unfamiliar rage.” The Women’s March of that year was both a “beam of hope,” and an inspiration to do something constructive, “something joyful” within the community. She realized she could use her own experiences of trauma and being uprooted to reach the wider refugee population. So in April 2017, quitting her job and using her own savings, she founded nonprofit ARTogether.
By cold calling other agencies that support refugees, in particular, Oakland’s Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants, she was able to ascertain that the idea she had — providing art and craft classes for refugees — was needed, and could be supported. By June 2017, ARTogether was offering its first women’s craft class, and by September, it was offering 40.
Dance artist Samia Karini, an immigrant from Afghanistan, has known Zand almost from the beginning of ARTogether. She also wanted to reach back into the refugee community and connected with the nonprofit and Zand on Facebook. Together, they began discussing opportunities to bring classes to Oakland International High School, which serves newly arrived immigrants. “Leva is the center of many networks,” said Karini. “She is defined by her compassion, her curiosity, and her determination. She pulls the right people into her sphere.”
Another one of those people is Oakland-based composer, producer, and pianist Tal Ariel. Two years ago, he and his wife attended an event for International Refugee Day and noticed the ARTogther table. “I met Leva and asked her about her vision, whether it included music,” Ariel said. “She loved the idea and suggested approaching Oakland International High School for the pilot project.”
In September 2019, Ariel started an after-school program, which is now serving students originally from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and other countries. “Six different languages are spoken in my class,” Ariel said. One Ethiopian student wrote, performed, and produced what Ariel described as “an awesome rap” by the end of the semester. “I still have no idea what he is saying,” Ariel chuckled. But he’s been very impressed by how the students overcome the language barriers and help each other.
ARTogether helps provide the laptops, software, and other equipment needed for the students to create their music. “I can’t imagine how it feels being a refugee at that age,” said Ariel. “Having this outlet gives them a tool to heal.” As for Zand, he is amazed at what she’s been able to accomplish in such a short time. “She just does it,” he said.
The still-fledgling nonprofit has expanded to include a program supporting refugee artists by helping them build their portfolios and websites and linking them with galleries that might have interest in exhibiting their work. A public education project sends ARTogether personnel into schools to teach about the refugee experience. And a partnership with the Global Initiative Program has enabled sister ARTogether projects to launch in Zurich, Switzerland, and Fort Worth, Texas.
This month, ARTogether is sponsoring an exhibit featuring the work of female immigrant artists of color, Reflections on Home, opening March 1 at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. Zand knows firsthand how their art expresses their own pain — and compassion for others’. She related the story of one participant in a workshop taking place during the Camp Fire, as smoke filled the Bay Area. “She said she was so sad to see how people lost their homes. She had lost her own home in her country,” said Zand. “Two days later, I found out she had started a fund to help those left homeless by the fire.”
As fast as ARTogether has grown, and as receptive as Zand has found agencies in the city of Oakland, as well as the refugee communities themselves, the nonprofit still has many needs. It still does not have a home office. More board members to support its mission would be welcomed. Zand dreams of a warehouse space where multiple art programs could be held under the ARTogether umbrella. She continues to prefer the small-donor funding model to seeking big-dollar grants, because it more closely represents the community model her organization was created from.
Most of all, she abides by the belief that ARTogether is providing “a piece that is missing. Art is not a luxury,” she said. “It’s a necessity, especially in a time of trauma.”