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Sometimes in this job one sees connections, threads from one story that carry over into another, themes broader than the words under the headline, ideas woven into the fabric of the place we call home.

So it seemed this week.

One of those headlines: A naturalization ceremony at Nebraska Wesleyan University, where 41 people from 17 countries became U.S. citizens.

U.S. District Judge John Gerrard, who presided over the ceremony, acknowledged the oath they’d just taken to renounce allegiance to their native country’s government.

He reminded them all they were renouncing was allegiance to a government — not the devotion to their native land, its people or its culture.

“For the benefit of your children and your grandchildren and your own benefit I hope you will preserve your native language and culture. Doing so enriches not only the lives of your family, but doing so also enriches America and all of us living here,” he said.

“For over 220 years, this country has been blessed with the constant infusion of new people just like you from all over the world who brought their languages, their heritage, their culture and their values with them. Today it is you who bless all of us.”

Cut to another headline: The Quilted Conscience, a project at Sheldon Museum of Art with 19 English Language Learners at Lincoln High who represent some of the heritage that makes the United States — and Lincoln — so rich.

The students come from Myanmar or refugee camps in Thailand and comprise one of Lincoln’s newest refugee communities.

They are working with a group of quilters to create a quilt of their own, built on memories of their homeland and dreams for their future in America.

“We are learning from them as they are learning from us,” said Susan Hertzler, Lincoln High’s ELL department chairwoman. “It’s a chance for us to teach them something and for them to teach us something.”

Many people from Myanmar weave, so organizers asked some of the students’ parents to weave a border for the quilt using thread traditionally used in their country. The quilt also uses traditional Karin colors, Hertzler said, oranges and browns, greens and reds.

The project is the outgrowth of a documentary produced by New York City resident — and Nebraska native — John Sorenson.

Called the Quilted Conscience, the documentary follows sixteen Sudanese girls, who made up the newest refugee population in Grand Island, as they make a similar quilt.

Sorenson watched what happened with the project in Grand Island, how it allowed the students to talk about painful memories in refugee camps and their war-torn country, how it created friendships, how it helped Grand Island residents get to know the students.

“It was a story in contrasts and connections,” he said.

Lincoln High School showed the film in November, leading to a conversation between Hertzler and Sorenson, and to a similar project involving the school’s Southeast Asian refugees. Sorenson hopes to create a curriculum so other schools that have shown interest can create their own projects.

Quilters Peggy Hartwell and Ruth Kupfer are helping coordinate the project, which is unfolding this week at the Sheldon. Sorenson wanted the students to get out of their school and see part of the community, spending time in an art gallery they might not otherwise see.

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On Thursday, students stitched appliques onto their quilt blocks: stories of their heritage — homes set among trees and rivers and mountains, gardens they tended, animals they cared for, sunsets they watched. On another block, they sewed pictures of their future.

Some, like Eh Tee Day, 15, and Wah Kpaw, 18, dreamed of becoming teachers and nurses, and returning to their country to help those they left behind.

“My dream is to become a teacher and teach my language, because they don’t get to go to school,” Day said.

The two quilt blocks of Gin Khai work together: groups of people standing hand in hand in both quilts. Only the backgrounds are different.

The memory quilt represents the gatherings in his homeland, how people came together to grieve and celebrate. The dreams block represent his hopes for similar gatherings in his new home.

“I hope everywhere,” he said.

The Quilt Conscience organizers hope to display the quilt when it’s done, perhaps at the Sheldon and other venues.

A judge’s sentiments, sewn together for the world to see.

Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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