Justin Sirois, one of this year’s b Grant winners, was featured in the June issue of Baltimore Magazine in an article titled “Sign Language“. The article, discusses Justin’s work with Haneen Alshujairy, an Iraqi refugee living in Egypt, and their efforts in launching the Understanding Campaign. The campaign aims to open up dialogue between American and Arabic cultures by asking everyone to learn just one Arabic word – fhm (pronounced “fuh’hem”) – which means “understanding.” From the article:
“While working on a novel in 2007 about survivors of the Iraq War, Baltimore resident Justin Sirois posted a request on an international website for Iraqis to answer his questions about the country’s culture.
Questions ranged from “Where do you shop?” to “What kind of pets do you have?” Or, for those who had fled the country, he asked, “Why did you leave?”
Seventeen-year-old Haneen Alshujairy, an Iraqi refugee who had fled with her family to Egypt, responded and the two opened up an e-mail dialogue. When the project ended, Sirois came away with more than a book—he had a deeper connection to Middle Eastern people.”
“Thinking back to his budding friendship with Alshujairy, Sirois thought things could be different if people from the two cultures would simply talk to one another…If they could form a cross-cultural bond, why couldn’t others?”
Using his skills as a graphic designer and asking other artists to do the same, Justin began transforming the Arabic representation of the word “fhm” into pieces of artwork, which not only grabs people’s attention, but teaches them something at the same time.
“‘I was always surprised by the conversations I would have, specifically with strangers,’ Sirois says. ‘People would ask about the T-shirt I was wearing or the button on my hat and that would spark a five- or 10-minute conversation where people wanted to know more.’”
Established in 2010, the Understanding Campaign has been a huge success. It has triggered numerous artists to contribute to the campaign efforts by using the Arabic script “fhm” as inspiration, including local talent such as Kevin Sherry and Jean-Baptiste Regnard of Squidfire (whose design is included in the bottom left, above). Fellow b Grant winners Nolen Strals and Bruce Willen of Post Typography also contributed (bottom right, above), as well as 2011 Mary Sawyers Baker Prize winner Gary Kachadourian:
In addition to local artists, the Understanding Campaign has gotten the attention of some big name celebrities, such as Yoko Ono -who urged followers through twitter to check out the campaign- and Emmy-winning actor William H. Macy and his wife, Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman- who, according to the article, “each supplied the Kickstarter campaign with a modest check and an endorsement.”
Congrats on a great article and keep up the great work, Justin!