Balamani Mariana Madden was turned away hungry while going door to door as a child in India, begging for food.

Sabir Kenyawani missed out on three years of high school after his mother was captured in Sudan by rebels.

Amani Thal fled violence in Sudan as a 10-year-old and still has a childhood nostalgia for her homeland nearly eight years later.

The three are all taking part in an exhibit by immigrant and refugee teens going up Downtown, intended to help connect the larger community with one that often has no platform.

"My goal is to tell the stories of those who made it possible for me to live the dreams that my parents never got to live," said Thal, a senior at Catalina Magnet High School who is considering a nursing or a military career.

The grant-funded "Finding Voice" project, which got its start in 2007, is using art to improve the language skills of English as a Second Language students at Catalina. Teacher Julie Kasper worked with photographer Josh Schachter to help students tell their stories of poverty, violence and war, as well as their reactions to their new countries. Some worry about being judged. Or speak of isolation.

After writing their stories, the students worked in teams to take photo portraits of one another. The images, combined with quotes from their writings, were used to create posters for the project, sponsored through the Tucson Pima Arts Council and the Every Voice in Action Foundation.

Kasper, a teacher for 10 years, said it's often hard to get students to let go of their writing.

"Just to get it on paper is hard, but in this case they know their best friend or a stranger is going to read it and think about what they have to say. They'll revise eight or nine times, and I believe that's because the audience is real, and the topics are meaningful to them."

The work has been up for a year at bus shelters throughout town, but through the end of April passers-by on Congress will for the first time see the entire body of work either hanging in storefronts at 1 N. Fifth Ave. or across the street at the Rocket Gallery, 270 E. Congress St.

An interactive display also will be set up, asking observers how they apply "artivism" in their own lives — a play on the combination of "art" and "activism." Photos of participants and their responses will go up on the wall of the gallery in a running slide show.

"This is a group of young people who are not just taking photos and writing about their experiences, but they're pushing that work into public platforms to keep questioning and to ask us how we're relating to this community and this population," said Leia Maahs, the art council's development coordinator.

Thal said she hopes it makes observers see others' common humanity, adding that her experiences give her a feeling of kinship with illegal immigrants crossing into Arizona's borders.

"They're coming here to get an education and to change something in their lives," she said. "I just think it's important to talk to people out there who don't know anything about the experience of immigration."

Other students in the project said it made them more open.

Kenyawani, now 21 and a political science student at Pima Community College, said he never wanted to talk about the things he had seen before coming to this country as a 19-year-old high school senior.

"But now, I want to see if it makes an impact on people's lives. Most people know nothing about Africa and the struggles people are going through — war, no food, no money for school."

Madden said it wasn't until she came to Catalina, with its diverse population, that she started opening doors she had closed. She is now able to talk about what it was like to be scared after seeing her mother's murder, or what it was like to come to a country as an adopted 10-year-old where no one spoke her home language of Telugu. She talks about having to leave her father behind and how she hopes one day to find him.

She hopes to encourage observers to get involved and help refugees. "Money is not the key. They need your time. Come to school and help translate, or help them learn English, or help them with employment or finances."

Marie Fordney, a program manager with the Every Voice in Action Foundation, said she was moved by the work.

"A lot of times when people are struggling with the language, they tend to be quiet, and we often mistake that silence as consent with our point of view or with the way things are," she said. "The work the students produced reiterated for me that that isn't true."

IF YOU GO

• What: Art by immigrant and refugee teens

• When: Through April 29

• Where: Posters will be up in Downtown storefronts at 1 N. Fifth Ave. Art will be displayed at the Rocket Gallery, 270 E. Congress St. The gallery is open 4-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday.

• To learn more: Go to www.artivismtucson youthweek.com

Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield a 806-7754 or at rbodfield@azstarnet.com.