Return to Headlines

Aiken High School Student Wins UN Refugee Agency Art Contest - Inspiring Journey To Be Captured on UNIQLO T-Shirts

Few stories are as compelling as those that unfold in the lives of refugees – tales of resilience, courage and the lives left behind. Among 4,000 young artists worldwide, Aiken High School student Asifiwe Shema’s drawing captured not only the essence of this period of his life, but also one of the top five spots in the third United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Youth with Refugees Art Contest. 

Shema’s captivating artwork titled "Friend Code" stood out among the entries as a reflection of his journey from Burundi to America and a testament to the enduring power of friendship.

"My drawing is a picture of my friend group from when I lived in Burundi. We all follow our friend code that says: ‘My friend squad comes first and nobody can break us apart,’” shared Shema. 

The genesis of Shema's artwork can be traced back to his participation in the "Illustrated Memoir Project" at Aiken High School. Led by school partner Dr. Kate Carlier Currie, Executive Director of Maketank Inc., the project encourages students to share their personal stories through writing and illustration. 

Dr. Currie, emphasizes the importance of letting students express themselves authentically. 

“Because these kids come from all different cultures all over the world, my Western idea of storytelling is not one true way to tell their stories, so I really just support their fantastic works,” said Dr. Currie.

Dr. Currie explains that her role in the project is more in support and supervision, rather than editing or influencing the stories in any way. 

When Shema received his memoir project assignment, he already had an idea in his mind of what his story would encompass.

“When we left Burundi, we were told not to lose our culture, so I wanted to make sure that my drawings and my story kept my culture in it,” said Shema. 

Shema's story, rooted in his cultural identity, became a touching narrative of dreams, challenges and lasting connections, and thanks to Dr. Currie's connections with the United Nations, he used his memoir as the basis of what became his submission for the Youth with Refugees Art project.

Shema expressed that his art is a reflection of his culture back home in Burundi and despite not thinking of himself as a master in the arts, put his all into capturing the friendships he left behind. 

The powerful imagery and distinctive style of Shema's illustrations left an indelible mark on Dr. Currie, who knew he was destined to be one of the chosen few. 

"It was such a striking illustration, and he has such a beautiful and very specific illustrating style that I knew he would be selected," Dr.Currie praised. She commended Shema's humility, noting his tendency to downplay his talent despite the overwhelming support and recognition his work received.

Now, Shema's artwork, along with five other remarkable pieces, will be featured on UNIQLO t-shirts, echoing his message of hope and solidarity.  The five outstanding designs will be available for sale online in 2024, with the proceeds dedicated to supporting those forced to flee their homes.

"It just makes me feel famous, but not only that, it makes me feel like I’m helping because they're going to sell those t-shirts and help displaced refugees,” said Shema. “I feel like people are wearing change."

To read and support Asifiwe's story, visit the MakeTank Inc. website at https://www.maketankinc.org/.

In June of 2023, Rojina Rai’s story "I Choose to be Courageous"  was chosen as a featured selection from the UNHCR annual Refugee Storyteller Celebration. You can read her story at: https://www.cps-k12.org/site/default.aspx?PageType=3&DomainID=50&ModuleInstanceID=70&ViewID=6446EE88-D30C-497E-9316-3F8874B3E108&RenderLoc=0&FlexDataID=6527&PageID=93