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The Art of Healing: Syrian Refugee Children Express Themselves

The Art of Healing: Syrian Refugee Children Express Themselves

[A student (name withheld) at the Friendship School in Turkey. Photo by David Gross.] [A student (name withheld) at the Friendship School in Turkey. Photo by David Gross.]

[Note: The children's portraits are not paired with their drawings, for the sake of their privacy. The young artists of the drawings are kept anonymous and all children are only referred to by first name, when permitted.]

The Syrian civil war has created the largest refugee crisis in a generation, yet the world has not provided for nearly enough of them. Many Syrians, mostly children, still need the basics: shelter, education, food, and security. Many also need psychosocial support and therapy to cope with their traumatic experiences.

As a photojournalist I have covered war, conflict, natural disasters, and their aftermath. However, when it came to depicting the Syrian war I decided that traditional journalistic images were not enough. There are many photos of destruction and refugees already in circulation, and the dangers of traveling inside Syria make it impossible to work there.

I decided to try something different. In the winter of 2013, Mieke Strand and I joined with, among others, a Turkish art therapist, Ezgi Içöz, and a Syrian theater and arts teacher, Khalid Eid, to bring art classes and therapy to four Syrian refugee schools in the south of Turkey, near the Syrian border. Our project was called The Inside-Outside Project. Its primary goal was to provide a joyful, open space for the children to express together through art all kinds of emotions in a non-judgmental and accepting environment.

We also created formal photographic portraits that present Syrian children as dignified individuals. We were experimenting with a new visual language meant to break through the filters of distance and otherness that are often produced by traditional journalistic images of refugees.

Working with the children opened my eyes to the power of the arts. At first, I could not shake the feeling that the work was insignificant in the face of the difficulties these children faced as refugees. After all, what good is an hour of painting? The answer came from Khalid, who said, “Art is important. It’s not like wasting time. Before, it was nice to have art. Now, it has a new mission. In this situation, art has a greater value. Before the revolution, we had art classes. It was important, but not a big deal. But now, it is important. This is the door, the way, the window to take feelings outside.”

However, asking children to relive painful and traumatic experiences should not be done without the proper long-term therapeutic structure, which can enable the memories to become catharsis. While the art classes we led allowed the children to express feelings about the war when they arose spontaneously, we did not ask them directly to reflect on it. Refugee children are too often asked by adults around them to remember the war, to speak about it, to take a political stand. Children also absorb the fear, anxiety, rage, and sorrow of adults around them. They are not fooled by adults' calm exteriors. These children often feel powerless and controlled. The art classes were designed to be a time of much needed self-expression, communication, and fun. While some class projects allowed for negative emotions and difficult memories to emerge, many brought out positive thoughts and dreams and all sessions actively created empathy and bonds of support among the children and teachers.

The news media, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been most interested in reproducing the pictures that depict violence, but what is most important to the children is the freedom to let their imaginations roam unrestricted in an environment that enables their thoughts to be heard.

One of the schools we worked at in Turkey is the Free Syria School in Reyhanli, located in the basement of a six-story building. The headmistress, Maysaa Hamoud, was enthusiastic about a drawing exercise that taught free drawing, saying that was the kind of learning her students needed: breaking boundaries and thinking for themselves. Finger painting, in particular, was a big hit with the girls, a class which demanded getting messy. In the end, with official sanction to “go crazy,” they smeared paint with their whole hands and painted faces on their fingers. The school has few resources but the atmosphere is one of ambition, hope, and friendliness. Maysaa and her husband Hussam El Din Shehadeh started the school themselves and use their own savings rather than ask the children’s families to pay. They are refugees too. Hussam was a member of the Free Lawyers of Aleppo pro-democracy group and was forced to flee with his family to Turkey after his car was blown up.

The Friendship School in Gaziantep is not private like the others. The city pays for the school and has installed a Turkish director to oversee its operation. Children wear uniforms and the school has proper classrooms and materials. Ezgi and Khalid used games, exercise, and physical play as part of the art therapy. Ezgi noted that one of the themes that came up with these children is that of missing home. She says, “We opened the sessions by expressing emotions through play, imagination, images and sharing… We worked with the negative images, emotions, and memories. The children expressed them through drawing, painting, and storytelling. Then, we tried to find ways to heal the negativity by finding strength in the art.”

Al Fateh school in Gaziantep is a small school, not specifically for needy refugees, but rather designed to create a new educated class of dedicated young people who will return to Syria to solve their homeland’s problems. The concerns of the adults about the war, violence, and the fate of country are clearly conveyed to the children, who in turn have developed adult fears and anxieties along with a strong sense of duty towards others inside Syria. These students drew more political pictures, with flags, slogans, and images of President Bashar al Asad being murdered. 

Torches of Freedom, in Karamaranmaraş, Turkey, was founded and is directed by Sanabl Maranadi. It is a center for activism for local refugees as well as a school for around eight hundred children. Ezgi was asked to teach the teachers new methods for working with the kids so they could benefit from her skills even after we left. Ezgi recounts about our experience here, “We began our sessions [with the 5th grade students] by making an agreement not to hurt ourselves or each other, and when I asked them what they needed from their friends during the session to feel safe, they said ‘I need the others not to lie.’ The 8th graders were very excited about the arts. …They chose to call the group ‘the artist friends.’ When we talked about what we wanted to paint, they said they were tired of drawing war. They said they wanted to paint happy things.”  Before we left, Ezgi asked them to make mementos for us: “a postcard about their strengths, their gifts to the world. They were very supportive of each other, and they told each other how funny, how smart, how kind, and how strong they were. It was so beautiful to see how they had a lot of good and inspiring things to say to each other. Their need for support and compassion was very touching - as was their strength - and it was very difficult for us to say goodbye.”

In 2015, to continue the project, I went to Beirut to train local teachers of Syrian refugee children how to use art therapy techniques. An upcoming lesson, which has been used in California schools but not yet in Turkey or Beirut, will also teach the basics of classical portrait lighting. The project will allow the children to experiment and express themselves through photography. It uses tools most children have access to: a phone camera (or a point-and-shoot) and a household lamp. The therapeutic aspect, in this case, is the opportunity for children to present themselves in new and attractive ways, to take control over their own images. The portraits will also allow them to see themselves as dignified and important, as this classical Renaissance portrait style was designed to do.

I decided to formalize the project under the name Artivism, a broader concept that expanded upon what I’d done with the Inside-Outside Project. It also includes a new program, an art exchange between children. In the exchange, refugee children and students around the world create and share art and stories. The children paint postcards and write messages to each other. The artwork is becoming part of an Internet archive of children’s drawings of war, a new and unique resource for research and advocacy.

My hope is that the program forges community between refugees and people in other countries, changing the relationship between refugees and their supporters from one of  “victim” and “helper” to a community of people.


Caption to the drawing in the slide show above: “The Tree, the Clouds and the Very Scary Birds”
Artist: 11-year old girl
Topic for this session: Scary bad things in two colors.

These are the scariest colors, she said. These black clouds and these black birds, they scare me so much. 

Ezgi asked, why are they scary? Then, the girl was afraid, and Ezgi said, I will sit beside you to make you feel safe. The girl said, I feel when I was drawing this, it was like night, and the birds and clouds and tree were black. I suddenly felt afraid. 

Ezgi said, what do you feel now, seeing it on paper? The girl said, I feel better, more comfortable because I saw it before all the group. 

The girl was still stressed, so Ezgi asked, what do you need from the group? To close their eyes? The girl said, to not lie to each other.

Ezgi asked, what do you say about this painting? You can hold my hand. The girl turned to the painting and said, I am not afraid of you. I was afraid of it before, but not now.

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