Minnesota was Veda Partalo’s first home in the United States. She came on Thanksgiving Day in the late 1990s as a refugee from Bosnia with her mother and sister and a suitcase each.
Partalo remembers Catholic Charities, the social service agency that helped them with their first apartment. They helped her mother get a job and brought them Christmas gifts. Her family thought, “We can build a home here. Having a community with open arms was a really, really big deal,” she says.
As a 14-year-old she got her first job with the Young Women’s Mentoring Program of YouthCare, mentoring primarily Hmong and Laotian immigrant girls, while being mentored herself. “It made me feel like a contributing member of the community. Most immigrants share that desire. They want to give something to the new home they are in,” Partalo says.
She doesn’t recall an immigrant “backlash,” like there is in our culture today, but she says, “I did not speak English well so I don’t think I understood it if there was one. We are Bosnian and I think there is a higher level of acceptance of white Europeans. The political climate was not as harsh then.”
Over the 20 years that Partalo has lived in the United States, she’s developed a pattern – each Thanksgiving, in commemoration of her family’s arrival here, she engages in an act of giving. “The only reason I am here is that others did that for me,” she says. Often it is giving clothing to organizations that serve refugees. One year it was a foosball table to a shelter for homeless youth.
Fast forward to Partalo’s 2015 Thanksgiving, when she travelled to the Twin Cities from her current home in New York to celebrate with her family their “coming home day.” She posted on Facebook that she was collecting clothing for refugees, intending it to be seen by her Twin Cities friends, but she accidentally made it a public post. Then “some random troll started making crazy comments” and she thought, “Wow. This is extreme.” It was not what she had expected or experienced in Minnesota.
Partalo called her long-time, local friends Wes Winship and Mike Davis – Davis’ wife was a refugee from Laos – for support. “We talked about what was going on and thought ‘wouldn’t it be nice if people took a stand on this.’ But Minnesota is so quiet.”
They wondered what might be a gentle way to take a stand in support of refugees. They created a sticker that businesses could put up – like “American Express Welcomed Here” only it would say “Refugees Welcome.” It seemed like a Minnesota-friendly action.
Davis and Winship designed and printed 2,500 stickers in their first run at the Minneapolis graphic design firm they co-run, Burlesque of North America. They have distributed more than 14,000 so far, in places including Seattle, Honolulu, Nova Scotia, Limerick, Paris and Stockholm.
“It’s a raise-your-hand kind of campaign. I like that,” Partalo reflects. “The conversation about immigrants and refugees has been so violent and vulgar. There is something about a quiet symbol of acceptance.”
Partalo calls it “the little sticker that could.”
FFI: You can order stickers or download a pdf at: burlesquedesign.com/products/refugees-welcome-sticker-set