Kendra Litwiller ’14 Yoder with her original illustrations for "Messages from Maryam," a children's book written by her friend Lauren Pinchon. Yoder earned a degree in English from Eastern Mennonite University and is currently studying to become an art teacher at James Madison University. She and husband Tyler Yoder '14 also work at Eastside Church in Harrisonburg. (Photos by Jon Styer)

Illustrator’s first book features friendship between young refugees and their adaptation to a new life

Aila and Maryam, two young Iraqi girls, are best friends but separated when Aila’s father decides to take his family to America. This situation, all too real today, is the background of the book Messages from Maryam by Lauren Pichon, and illustrated by Kendra Litwiller ’14 Yoder.

Yoder, originally from Hopedale, Ill., studied art education at Hesston, but graduated from Eastern Mennonite University with a degree in English. She lives in Harrisonburg, Va., with her husband Tyler Yoder ’14 and is taking classes in art education at James Madison University.

Kendra Yoder’s illustrations for “Messages from Maryam.”

“After graduating from EMU, I felt God calling me to go back to school to study art education,” Yoder said. “Even though I loved the things I studied at EMU, making art is an essential part of who I am, and through volunteering with Kids Club through Eastside Church (Harrisonburg), I learned that I thrive working with children.”

This realization helped Yoder find her first illustrating job with Messages from Maryam. Author Lauren Pichon attends church with Yoder. Pichon, a English language teacher for many refugee students, was inspired by her students’ stories and wanted to share them.

“I was all in, not only by the chance to illustrate, but by the chance to help convey an important situation to children,” Yoder said about being asked to illustrate Pichon’s book. “Lauren and I were both excited about sharing the book across a spectrum from refugee children to children who don’t know what a refugee is.”

Yoder understood how important sharing this story with children would be. As the character Aila details what it’s like to leave her home and friends, live in a refugee camp with uncertainty of what will happen next and eventually make her way to a new home in a new country, Maryam speaks to the fears of staying behind in Mosul, Iraq, sharing the hardships and missing her friend. Yoder shared that she thinks it’s important to include children in conversations.

“The book can show refugee children that their experiences matter, and it can help other children understand what their refugee friends experience,” Yoder said. “They are the people who are growing now and will impact our world’s future.”

It’s obvious that understanding other people is something that’s close to Yoder’s heart. The community she experienced at Hesston College helped her learn about and understand the people she interacted with while a student. She shared how the many roles she had on campus, notably soccer player, chorale member and RA, helped her learn how to welcome people.

“My freshman year, we had an exceptional mod who meshed well together,” she said. “I cherish the things we did together, from contra dancing to eating cheese puff balls in our RA’s room. Some of the women in my mod became friends that I still keep in touch with and wouldn’t be the same without.”

Yoder spent considerable time working on art and writing during her time at Hesston.

“Many of the classes I took at Hesston challenged my understanding of the world, helped me to think big picture, and started shaping my adult life.”

The art skills she learned helped illustrate a happy ending for Aila and Maryam. They are reunited at school, just like the one Pichon teaches at.

This article is reprinted with permission from Hesston College.

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