As the glass elevator rose through the west tower of the San Antonio Museum of Art, images of Buddhist holy figures on the second floor were revealed. The passengers gasped.
“W-o-o-o-o-w,” they exhaled as though on cue.
“My country!” several said excitedly.
The works are from Tibet, but they were reminiscent of the culture several left not too long ago. The Saturday tour was the latest in the series It’s Art in Any Language for refugees, immigrants, and anyone new to the United States and San Antonio. Most of its participants are elementary and middle school students.
The free tours are offered once a month; the next will take place at 11 a.m on April 15.
Students and their families have immigrated to San Antonio from Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal, Pakistan, Mozambique, India, Egypt, and elsewhere. Their first languages include Pashto, Urdu, Karenni, Nepalese, and Malay.
While the tour is modeled on similar offerings in Europe and Canada, SAMA’s came about when one of its educators, while on a “Museum on the Go” program, encountered more than 30 languages in a single classroom at Colonies North Elementary School.
“We are not political,” said SAMA Chief Engagement Officer Cary Marriott. “But it’s hard not to be affected by the current political climate and desire to showcase museums as hospitable, democratic, global places that represent man’s universal impulse to create.
“It takes years to truly be assimilated into a new culture and community. We think museums can play an important role in that.”
The tour Saturday morning was arranged by Catholic Charities, who brought the children and their mothers by bus from Glenoaks and Colonies North Elementary, and Rudder Middle School.
Apart from a few colorful hijabs, dark-lashed Egyptian eyes, and intense curiosity and wonder, it might have been any ordinary day at the museum. Most of the children wanted to answer the tour guides’ questions, waving their hands to be chosen.
One of four tour guides, Melissa Varner, said she started her tour in the Asian art wing where the children and a few parents wanted to know the age of artifacts and where they had come from.
On the museum’s sky bridge, connecting two wings, the group was awed by the view of downtown San Antonio.
“They were really delightful, and so excited to be here, so curious about everything,” Varner said. “They want to be in San Antonio and are learning everything as fast as they can.”
The children, who are learning English in school, translated for their parents.
Undoubtedly, tour guides learned a few things to add to their scripts. Sama Fadhil, a 10-year-old Egyptian girl, filled guide Kiki Gay in on why the goddess Sekhmet, of whom a sculpture is prominently displayed in the Egyptian collection, has the face of a lion.
Parveen Mohammed, 10, told Gay all about camels – such as the one depicted in an ancient sculpture on display in the Asian wing. The ones Mohammed knows live in her country, Pakistan.
“You have to be careful with them,” Mohammed said earnestly. “They can throw you off.”
Mohammed and her family left Pakistan, she later said, because “there were a lot of army fights, like war happening, and so for our safety we moved here.”
She and other children said they like San Antonio because it’s safe. Fadhil said the main difference between San Antonio and Cairo is that Cairo has “more pyramids, more sand and more hotels, but here it’s greener.”
Besides learning about their own and other cultures, the tours bridge the gap between schools and parents, getting parents more involved in their children’s schooling.
“Back in their home countries they don’t realize that then can be involved, they can ask questions, they can get involved with the teacher,” Varner said.
A Malaysian mother of two children on the tour wrote a note for a reporter: “My country is the war, discrimination. I came to America. America is at peace.”