Art project connects 100 teens with centenarians for lasting friendships
Updated August 24, 2019 14:46:36
An unlikely friendship between a 101-year-old woman and a teenage refugee has blossomed over chocolate biscuits and cups of black tea in the front room of a retirement unit in Brisbane’s south.
The pair were brought together by a special art project that united 100 teenage artists with 100 of Queensland’s oldest residents.
The teens are painting or drawing portraits of the senior citizens and the project has resulted in friendships across generations.
Centenarian Peggy Muller and 15-year-old Hasinah Zainal have been meeting every week for the past couple of months in Ms Muller’s unit.
“She’s an amazing girl — it’s been lovely meeting with her … we talk, we play games … I think she’s a very inspiring young girl,” Ms Muller said.
The feeling is obviously mutual, as Hasinah’s face lights up when she talks about her new friend, who she was sketching in pencil.
“I feel very lucky to be hanging out with Peggy,” she said.
“I’m just waiting all week for Saturdays and Sundays to go and meet Peggy … she’s a really good friend now.”
Despite the vast age difference, the pair have much in common.
Both left their homelands to find a better life in another country.
Ms Muller arrived in Australia as a young girl, when her family left the UK at the end of World War I, looking for a peaceful life.
‘Our stories are the same’
Hasinah and her family are Hazara refugees who fled Iran, travelling overland to Indonesia to seek asylum in Australia.
“We have a lot in common … our stories are the same,” Hasinah said.
Hasinah, her three siblings and her parents spent four years in an Indonesian detention centre in Makassar, along with tens of thousands of other illegal immigrants living in limbo, while seeking asylum.
“I was very difficult for my family,” she said.
“We arrived in Indonesia and registered with UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and then just waited to see if Australia would take us.”
It was there that Hasinah learnt to draw and went to school for the first time … having been denied access to schooling in Iran.
“Art really helped me to stay calm and to find myself,” Hasinah said.
“I was sad and depressed because we didn’t know if a country would accept us or if we would have to go back to Iran.
“It was really hard on us all, especially my mum, who was doing everything for us … but art turned my life around and changed everything.”
The family were eventually granted refugee status and arrived in Brisbane in 2017.
‘I love young people’
Ms Muller also had a difficult start in life.
Her father, carrying the physical and mental scars of serving in WWI, moved his young family from London to a farm at Coominya, about 80 kilometres west of Brisbane, in the 1920s.
“We had it hard when I was a girl on the farm … I was milking cows at [age] eight and I couldn’t go to school because it was too far away … so we’ve both had a tough start,” Ms Muller said.
Ms Muller spent a lifetime being involved with community and church work.
She has been a member of the Salvation Army for more than 90 years and taught Sunday school for 77 years.
“I’ve worked with young people for most of my life — I love young people,” Ms Muller said.
She credits her longevity to her faith and a positive attitude.
“Working with people and keeping in touch with the world, staying active, and having a positive attitude, all helps,” she said.
“Get involved with people and help them if you can.”
‘Loneliness is a huge issue across age groups’
The project uniting centenarians and teenagers was the brainchild of Rose Connors-Dance, the director of not-for-profit art organisation, Embraced.
“We’ve already seen some beautiful friendships blossom, which is really why we do this,” Ms Connors-Dance said.
“The inter-generational contact and connections are such a beautiful thing and something that we really miss out on the way our society is set up.
“It’s the best history lesson when you sit down with someone who was there and has a story that’s much bigger than a date.”
Ms Connors-Dance said the project began in Melbourne in 2017 and extended to Sydney last year and was about making connections across age divides.
“Receiving advice from someone who has been on this planet for a century can be incredibly moving and at times profound, and all of the interaction between our young people and our centenarians have been memorable,” she said.
“Loneliness is a huge issue across age groups, but particularly for older people, and it’s something we need to change — we can all benefit so much from spending time together across generations.”
Dreams of an art exhibition
Hasinah, who is now a Year 11 student at Sunnybank State High School on Brisbane’s southside, is already working on other portraits.
“I want to have my own exhibition, that is my dream,” she said.
“I’m looking for a teacher who can teach me more — I want to keep going.”
Ms Muller is excited the see the final product and is already considering where to put her portrait.
“I think she’s very clever, what a marvellous job she’s been doing,” Ms Muller said.
“I haven’t decided where to hang it yet, but it will go in pride of place.”
What is certain, is that an enduring friendship has been formed.
“She’s [Hasinah] part of my family now,” Ms Muller said.
Hasinah’s portrait of Ms Muller will be unveiled on Saturday as part of Seniors Week.
The 100 portraits will be on display until September 1 at Brisbane’s Seven Hills Hub.
First posted August 13, 2019 05:43:29