Asian Human Services

Group project: Five to ten adult participants.
Duration: 2 hour weekly sessions for 4 months. 
Location: Asian Human Services, Chicago, IL


This project took place from February until May of 2016 at Asian Human Services in Chicago. I worked with an art therapy group that focuses on supports for immigrant and refugee participants. Under the supervision of the head art therapist, Ha Tran, working alongside leading art therapist, Su Jin Eimer, I created and facilitated a weekly animation workshop with a group of five to ten adult participants. The number fluctuated in a regular fashion of any group in a community based setting: but, there were four-five regular participants, who attended most of the workshops; one of them, Bookie, attended all of them and therefore became an unofficial group leader.

The goal of the workshop was to create a group animation, on a topic decided on by all of the participants. Guided by myself and Su Jin, all involved decided to create an animation about their own shared immigration experience. Though, most participants were from different South Asian countries, they found that their immigrant narratives often intersect. Together, we spent the first two sessions coming up with an outline for the animation and learning animation basics by experimenting with animating.

The data from this fieldwork site comes mainly from my interviews with Ha Tran. Although, I designed and conducted a successful workshop, I am also aware of complexities of working with an art therapy group, with participants dealing with variety of mental and emotional issues, and responsibility that comes with it. That, in itself, required additional analysis and understanding, in relation to the participants’ immigrant experience; therefore I relied on Ha’s professional expertise. I conducted three interviews with Ha, including one post-mortem interview with both, Ha and Bookie. The first interview was conducted upon our decision to work together, the other two happened after the workshop was concluded. In these interviews I asked Ha about her personal motivation for working with immigrant communities, the value of art and animation therapy on mental health, potential of animation therapy techniques, challenges that she faces, and her professional goals. These interviews informed my perspective about the central purpose of this research: to explore parallels between art education and art therapy, as well as to determine the potential of  animation as an interdisciplinary tool.


Asian Human Services is a non-profit organization that helps thousands of Chicago’s immigrants, refugees and other underserved communities. Since 1978, when the organization began helping Southeast Asian refugees, its scope widened, now serving immigrants from 55 different countries and providing help in 33 different languages. Through offering education, healthcare and workforce development programs, the Asian Human Services strive to provide “client-centered, quality and compassionate services to Asian immigrants and other underserved communities so that they can fully participate in society, prosper and thrive.” When unable to provide specific services that are not available through AHS, the organization connects clients with institutions that offer them, while continuing to provide guidance and support.


Originally from Vietnam, Ha came to the U.S. with her seventeen-year-old aunt. For the first year they were living in a refugee camp. Ha described her admiration for her guardian, who herself was a child at the time. “I was always wondering how she managed that–how she learned the language, took care of me and herself? It was always amazing to me because when I was seventeen I didn't have close to the amount of responsibility that she had. As a child it's much easier to adjust to a new culture, a new language […]”, Ha describes art as something she has been drawn to since she was a child (personal communication, October 16th, 2015). Alternative ways of communicating (drawing, painting, storytelling), while growing up in an American home with English being her second language, have helped her express what words could not. Art therapy was a fusion of two passions that she developed in college-art and psychology. She says: “This work felt very natural. It felt like it’s what I'm supposed to be doing... Like this is my purpose...what I do is a part of my life. It's not separate. There's no work and life. This is life. The work that I do has to add meaning to how I live”(personal communication, October 16th, 2015). Ha plays multiple roles within the AHS’s mental health services branch. Besides being an individual therapist, she runs two group programs: Psychosocial Rehabilitation, focusing on individuals with more severe symptoms of mental illness (either just hospitalized or nursing home clients)—their everyday needs within the knowledge and understanding of the limitations posed by the illness or their situation and Community Support Group, in which individuals practice those everyday skills. Ha says that she wanted to give back to the community, help the newly immigrated individuals who are struggling to adjust to the new realities, and make the transition a little easier. But she also admits to how much she herself benefits from her work; by learning from the clients about her own culture, language, histories and the reasons why she had to leave Vietnam. Ha jokes that through helping other she gets to gain a better self-understanding. “It’s a win-win situation,” she laughs (personal communication, October 16, 2015).

Ha describes a problem with immigrant organizations serving very specific and selective communities (Polish, Asian, Mexican) and not reaching out to other diverse groups that may be facing similar challenges. She describes a need to change the Asian Human Services’ name in order to describe multicultural background of the organization. The lack of knowledge about the wide spectrum of multilingual and multicultural services offered is one of the main reasons preventing people from seeking help. Often, one’s lack of exposure to other cultures and nationalities creates a deeper feeling of alienation and loneliness in a new country, which in turn may create more complex mental and emotional problems. The role of Asian Human Services is to create a comfortable and welcoming space, where individuals can come into a facility and interact with other immigrants or refugees; be exposed to others, who might have similar experiences, regardless of their background. People are often culturally predisposed to hold certain stereotypes about things they are not familiar with. Group interaction helps individuals overcome preconceived notions or biases about different cultures that might have previously directed their reserved approach to each other.

AHS has a holistic approach to an individual’s well being. Ha says: “Everything is connected. A person cannot be happy if they don't have a place to live... even if their spirit is good, because…that runs out” (personal communication, March 10th, 2017). Individuals in need do not come to AHS seeking help with mental issues. They need help meeting basic human needs - finding employment, housing, health care, often-even food. Ha says that only through process of guiding and supporting them-teaching them about resources available within the community--other problems surface. Establishing a need for therapy and mental health support is one thing; yet, gaining a client’s trust—another. There is a huge stigma involved in a discussion about mental health. As many clients have problems admitting that they need mental health care because of shame and powerlessness involved, some of them are fearful of the consequences they might face. In many cultures mental illness is severely punishable and therefore a taboo. Many clients, on the other hand, do not trust any agency, because they believe in its government influence (AHS is non-profit and non-government affiliated). There are many steps to gaining an individual’s trust—from explaining differences between mental well being and mental illness, helping an individual understanding their illness, through being there for them in the times of crisis. According to Mental Health of Immigrants and Refugees essay, “cultural consultants with backgrounds in the immigrant and refugee communities have been found to be particularly effective […]” as well as “ approaches that address the need for validation, mutual support, and processing of their (consultants and clients) common experiences.”

Another challenge described by Ha is bridging generational and linguistic differences within families. Immigrant children often grow up in a different culture than their parents—often find it hard to communicate and often having more responsibilities than their American peers (having to translate for their parents, representing them in formal situations, having to deal with “adult” issues because of the parents’ inability to fluently communicate in English). “Another critical function for mental health and social services is that of educating and assisting immigrants and refugees from diverse cultures in understanding different cultural norms and practices in their new environment, as well as educating mainstream providers about immigrants’ traditional cultural practices (Pumariega, 591).” Educating parents and family members about children’s and elderly family members’ rights is an important aspect of Ha’s work. Parents often feel ownership of their children and need to be educated about cultural and legal differences between the U.S. and their native country that should govern parenting.

Ha talks about multiple benefits of art therapy, one of which is being a linguistic bridge that connects people of different nationalities within the groups, but also enables her to provide quality mental health care to people whose language she does not speak and who have a limited knowledge of English. Even within the same language of communication, art therapy helps connect people with limited emotional capacity, who have problems expressing their thoughts and feelings. Ha employs various methods of therapy, using art, music, movement, role-playing, film and storytelling - constantly evaluating her group’s progress and developing new and creative ways to benefit her program. She explains that often process of creating is more important and beneficial to a client than the final artwork - process of being able to express was going on internally. Even to oneself... It doesn't necessarily have to be externalized.  I always find alternative ways of expressing yourself more effective than language” (personal communication, March 10th, 2017).

Ha describes similarities of the both media and their importance in non-verbal communication. She explains that video and animation have a potential of teaching people about their own presence and attentiveness. They can be used almost as a form of meditation and focus building. The tangibility / physicality of video and animation creating process (including learning how to use a camera or software, how to come up with the story and how to produce it), might give people a greater sense of self-awareness, satisfaction and accomplishment. It’s also easier to express real emotions and experiences through an imaginary narrative. “Play and imagination became an intervention for body and mind. Getting people to do to go outside of the body forces them to be more in it” (personal communication, May 1st, 2017). Reflecting back on the experience of creating a video with the group, Ha says: “People in this video respond very little to other things so it amazed me how involved they got. They hardly communicate with other people and have very little self-awareness, but there is something about video that got them involved. That’s another mystery - what is that connection exactly? There is something there that is very powerful"(personal communication, May 1st, 2017).


Ashworth, J., &, Mason, H. (2010). Animation in Therapy: The innovative uses of haptic animation in clinical and community therapeutic practice. Retrieved from

Pumariega, A.J., Rothe, E., & Pumariega, J.B. (2005). Mental health of immigrants and refugees. Community Mental Health Journal, 41(5), 581-597

Suárez-Orozco, C., Birman D., Casas J.M., Nakamura N., Tummala-Narra P., & Zárate M. (2013). Working with Immigrant-origin clients. An update for mental health professionals. The Report of the APA Presidential Task Force on Immigration. Retrieved from