Photo courtesy of Karisa Keasey.

Photo courtesy of Karisa Keasey.

Stories of strife in watercolor

Renton author, painter uses compassion to tell refugees’ stories

It’s a book of watercolor paintings and stories of neighbors, friends and family. But the participants all have one thing in common; they are refugees, settled in the Seattle area through World Relief.

Renton resident, author and painter of the book Karisa Keasey started her journey as an outsider. Five years ago she was sitting in bed, scrolling through Facebook. She came across information about the war in Syria and the people being tortured and murdered. But what broke her heart more than the terrifying situation was the comments left under the story. She said there were folks commenting more out of fear than love, and lacked compassion for the Syrian refugees.

So her and her husband set out to find a way to help. They quickly realized they wanted to support refugees but didn’t actually know any. They teamed up with World Relief to create a project where a larger audience could put a face and the story of a real person to the statistics and the discussions around refugees.

“When You Can’t Go Home: Portraits of Refugees in the Pacific Northwest” is a coffee table book collecting 30 watercolor paintings along with 10 stories of refugees and asylees who have resettled in the Seattle area. The book release was hosted by Boon Boona Coffee in September.

“We hope people can feel like they’re in the room with us, sitting on (the participants’) couch and watching their kids run around,” Kearsey said.

The people interviewed come from Eritrea to the Ukraine to the Congo, ranging from someone who has been in the Northwest for a few months to someone whose been here for 13 years. Keasey said it was important to show all the different journeys folks take to arrive in Seattle, and also to clarify common misconceptions, like the idea refugees choose where they end up or that there’s only one reason people have to leave their homes.

World Relief Outreach Manager Liz Nelson said people come to them all the time wanting to take photos and get stories of refugees in the Pacific Northwest, but that she’s sensitive to whether those who come in will actually see the project through, and view refugees as people first. She said what set Keasey apart was she stuck with the project, even as it took ultimately two years to complete, with 30 watercolor paintings and 10 stories.

“Instead of realizing ‘Oh, this isn’t the project I thought it was, it didn’t give me the immediate warm feels of service,’ It was hard work and she really stuck with it.” Nelson said. “She also did the work to wrestle with the mutuality: you can’t just be a storyteller, you have to be vulnerable with other people. I think she’s really done that in putting her heart into her paintings.”

Nelson said as they started to connect Keasey with the 10 families, they did the work to see the interviews through, even if they were awkward or taking a long time. She also made sure it was Keasey partnering more with the refugees and families she spoke to, and less about World Relief.

Keasey said it was awkward at first, and she was very nervous about interviewing people and being respectful of their cultures. But she soon realized that hour or so of her being concerned about her behaviors in front of the people she interviewed, was just a fraction of what refugees feel everyday trying to acclimate to a new culture. She said that realization was when it became really important to finish the book. She says the book isn’t her’s— it is for the community and it’s the stories of the people she spoke to. One of the challenges in making the book was her fear of being able to do the participants’ stories justice.

Although not an official partner, World Relief facilitated the relationships between Keasey and the families and provided resources like translators or cultural competency information whenever needed. Nelson said it also looked over the book at the end and provided statistics and facts on refugees and asylees. Half of the proceeds from the book will go to World Relief Seattle.

Nelson said funds from the book help support the organization’s non-federally funded projects, including a community garden, a women’s sewing class, a refugee youth summer academy and work done with asylees at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

She also made sure to connect Keasey to a range of families from different places with different stories and different careers. Nelson said Keasey did a beautiful job of highlighting these people’s resilience, and showing them as more than their darkest moments but as people with families, careers, cultures and a future.

Keasey said what changed many of these refugee’s lives in the Seattle metro was when someone stepped in to walk beside them. And while not every story is wrapped in a nice little bow, the participants life stories are filled with victories.

“When people first arrive it’s a really stressful, high pressure time. What people leave behind in their home countries is social capital,” Nelson said. “Even just knowing your neighbor’s name, having that person to fall back on when something goes wrong is part of what makes our community resilient, and it can make a difference in someone’s life to have a relationship like that.”

Global displacement is happening at a high rate, with more forcibly displaced people than there are spaces the U.S. and other countries are allowing for refugee resettlement. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found there were an estimated 70 million people forcibly displaced in 2018. This year, the U.S. has capped refugee resettlement at 18,000. This cap is for people who have already been vetted as being unable to return to the country they fled from.

Volunteer opportunities with World Relief, including a cultural companion program that develops those neighborly relationships, are available at

“There’s always something you have that can be used to make someone feel welcome. For (Keasey), that was watercolor,” Nelson said. “For someone else, that could be anything.”

“When You Can’t Go Home” is available at She also has upcoming book events available on her Instagram, @KarisaKeaseyArt, including the World Relief’s 40th Anniversary Gala, Saturday, Oct. 26. Tickets at

Renton Reporter reached out to World Relief to talk to participants of the book, who were unavailable by press deadline.

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