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Picturing a brighter future with art therapy
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BEIRUT: Pencils in hand, Mohammad and Ali sit quietly on the carpeted floor and begin to draw. Ali’s turquoise sweater is wearing thin, and Mohammad’s T-shirt is fraying at the collar. Two teachers have just passed out blank sheets of paper and suggested that the boys and their peers, who are all Syrian refugees, draw something they like, something they don’t like and what they hope to be when they grow up.

Ali and Mohammad’s art therapy class meets twice a week. The program, created by the organization Sawa, aims to draw Syrian refugee children out of their shell-shocked introversion with creative projects.

Mohammad, Ali and their peers sketch intently as they sit in a circle.

Ali carefully draws a nurse, complete with a face mask, and then erases her. Mohammad begins to color a sun in the upper left corner of his paper bright yellow.

The extent of the boys’ trauma is not immediately apparent as they sit contentedly on the floor. Soon, however, a darker picture emerges.

In one corner, Ali draws the ocean, some flowers and a rocket pointed toward a child lying in a hospital bed.

“I don’t like the sea, because it is salty,” Ali says as he shyly presents his drawing to the class. “I don’t like flowers and the rockets.”

Mohammad draws the sun, clouds, an airplane dropping a missile and two figures fighting, one with a gun. “This is a mother, and a man with a gun is hitting the mother,” he says quietly. “She asks him to stop but he won’t.”

“You see war in all their drawings,” sighs Hanan al-Omari, one of the project coordinators. “The first color they choose is red. Why? Because red resembles blood.”

Many other children draw similarly graphic scenes. One boy, Odei, sketches a plane shooting a missile at a house as a man with a gun stands nearby. “I don’t like warplanes,” he says. “And I don’t like the policeman.”

Moaz writes a large green letter B, for Baba, he says. His father, the teacher says quietly, was killed in Syria.

Many of the kids have family members involved in the opposition, Omari says. “Some of their families were taken in front of their eyes, imprisoned in front of their eyes. They usually draw soldiers dragging their siblings or their dad away,” she says.

The children, referred to Sawa by a network of local schools and non-governmental organizations, are often severely traumatized, she says. “They cannot mingle. They cannot talk. Other kids are aggressive.”

Sawa staff gleans particular insight from the artwork. “We collect the drawings the children do, we analyze them and in according to that analysis we specify each child’s case,” Omani says.

Through targeted creative projects spread over a number of sessions and, if needed, one-on-one meetings with a therapist, Sawa aims to “reprogram” the children’s war-framed mindsets.

Untacking a picture of a family trapped inside a burning home as a tank approaches, she recognizes the difficulty of Sawa’s task. “We try to deviate their thoughts, but we cannot stop them,” she says.

Still, there are encouraging moments. Ali and Mohammad gasp and giggle as they inflate purple balloons after they present their drawings. Another boy, Abdul-Latif, contentedly doodles a technicolor rabbit.

After several sessions, Hanan says she asked a young, orphaned refugee what the color red signified to him. “Oh your shoes,” he replied.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 20, 2013, on page 2.
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