Telling the Stories of Tallahassee's Refugees

Jun 16, 2017

Most Tallahasseeans probably don’t know much about the international refugees who now call the Capital City home. But a local digital artist is out to change that.

Credit vimeo.com

Alex Workman describes himself, first and foremost, as a storyteller.

“I’ve always loved telling stories,” he said. “My mom’s a Florida State grad and was an art teacher. And so from a young age I was always building things and creating things. She took the fine art route, I took the digital route.”

Workman, who most recently lived in Atlanta and his wife Chelsea who hails from Seattle, moved to Tallahassee in 2014 to start a non-profit. He said they found the community a bit insular and small-townish at first.

“I think we live in a city where often people are trying to be convinced of something. Like school. People are trying to tell you this is what you should know or in politics this is what people should vote for or this is what should be important to you. We wanted to do something that offered perspective and we’re not going to tell anyone what to do with it.”

Workman started a venture called Aerial Tallahassee, offering videos of the city from the sky. And late last year when wildfires devastated the area in and around Gatlinburg, Tennessee, he partnered with some other image makers to document the plight of that area’s residents. Back in Tallahassee, he quickly lost patience with those whose commitment to causes seldom went beyond venting on social media, or taking part in a one-off march and demonstration in front of the state capitol.

“I was sharing how I was frustrated watching people rant on Facebook with this false sense like they were actually doing something that’s going to help the people in our community by ranting on Facebook (or) walking down the street,” he remembered. “I’m not saying, ‘Don’t do that!’ or ‘Don’t take action!’ but if we check that box of helping our neighbor by posting on Facebook, what we think someone in politics should do, that’s definitely inherently selfish and it really does nothing.”

By then Workman’s wife had a job at City Church, which was helping a number of refugee families from the Congo. Workman suddenly saw another opportunity to use his skills to tell some remarkable personal stories.

“There are about 200 refugees living in Tallahassee right now,” he said. “There are about 70 of them that attend City Church every week. And so I began learning that City Church is helping through a number of volunteers that they’re providing English lessons and driving lessons and helping find job interviews.”

So Workman created the hashtag: #refugees of TLH. He posted pictures and the backstory of four Congolese families who now live in Tallahassee.

“Obviously it brings the idea into the hearts and minds of people in our community showing that there are a number of people who legitimately fled for their lives; who watched family members die in front of them. Some of the stories are horrific,” he acknowledged.

But Workman’s treatment of these tales is without sensationalism or melodrama. The major emphasis is on the human dimension of new neighbors in the town who are doing their best to join the larger community. Indeed, many of these families could use a helping hand and Workman said he’s enlisted an existing and well-respected Tallahassee resource.

“We ended up partnering with a non-profit in town called ‘Echo’. And what’s great is that Echo is operated as a fiscal agent for everything that we’re doing with the Refugees of TLH Project. And so open books, like 100% of the money given to each family goes to that family. Echo is also supporting a number of the families so we wanted to be super transparent, but also create a process and pathway for the funds that was wise.”

Workman’s refugee project has already attracted a lot of positive attention with tons of online hits and coverage in the Tallahassee Democrat and Gannett sister-publication USA Today. But Workman admitted there have also been critics.

“I did get some criticism; why not the veterans, or why not the homeless or single moms?” he said. “And my response is, do something! There are so many incredible creative people in our community and there are so many people who are incredibly talented that the creative community – specifically because that’s the community I associate myself with and have a lot of friends with – but anybody can do something and as a community of Tallahassee, we can love our neighbor in very practical ways.”

Check out Workman’s web site: www.refugees of TLH.com to see his work and meet a few new neighbors.

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