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How Syrian Children Are Drawing and Using Art Therapy to Heal the Trauma from War

Art therapy sessions started at the Nadja Now center when little kids sketched out images of the war: a daughter holding her mother's hand while a gun is pressed to her head point-blank.

In an upscale district of Downtown Beirut, two pre-teen boys rapped in Arabic during an exhibit showcasing the artwork of Syrian refugee children. Ramzi, a 12-year-old originally from Daraa, Syria, beatboxed as his friend Ayham, also from Daraa, spit rhymes. Guests watched quietly, impressed, as the two boys recalled life before the uprising turned civil war wreaked havoc on their country.

This was part of an exhibit called “Light Against Darkness,” the result of a three-month art workshop that focused on helping children overcome the trauma of war through creative expression. Forty-three children produced about 166 works of drawings and clay sculptures, many of which depicted colorful renditions of schools, kids playing together, and families bonding.


Others were not so cheery. Suha Wanous, a young girl originally from Latakia, drew a daughter holding her mother’s hand while a gun is pressed to her head. In the background of the picture, it’s raining and a helicopter is opening fire on a home while two small children lie on the grass bleeding, presumably dead. The organizers of the exhibit explained how Suha used to pass an army checkpoint daily before going to school back in Syria. She used to greet the soldiers assalamu alaykum (meaning “peace be upon you” in Arabic).

Art-therapy sessions first started as a response to sketches like Suha’s, said Ali Elshiekh Haidar, a representative of Najda Now, the Syrian NGO that organized the workshop in conjunction with the Norwegian Embassy in Beirut. “We want everybody to see that children can overcome the war… If they don’t have the voice, they have the color for everyone to see what they have seen,” he said.

For some children, expressing that voice on paper was no easy task. That’s where the Nadja Now center in Shatila comes in. The Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut’s southern suburbs is increasingly becoming home to Syrians fleeing the war. Sitting together in the center, Ali showed me dozens of sketches that were painted over in solid black out of angst. “At first, they were very stressed. They had a lot of shock from Syria, and they had the idea they could never see anything colorful again,” he said.


Since the sessions began, however, the children’s spirits seem to have been lifted. Children no longer blacken over their work, and most draw colorful images, including pictures of Syria’s green and rugged landscapes. “It has helped us forget what we saw in Syria,” remarked one young girl of the workshop.

Occasionally, Ali admits, children do recreate scenes from the war, especially if they hear bad news from Syria. But as Yasser Moalla, Najda Now’s psychotherapist, explained, “The purpose isn’t to forget the trauma of war, but to overcome it.” Many illustrations depicting combat, death, or destruction can still be seen hanging on the walls of the center in Shatila.

Even as Najda Now’s workshop has helped refugee children deal with the trauma of war, aid workers say more needs to be done for Syria’s children. As a joint press conference held by executives from some of the world’s largest aid agencies—Mercy Corps, UNHCR, UNICEF, Save the Children, and World Vision International—clearly declared in Beirut on March 15, the third anniversary of the Syrian uprising, an entire generation of children are “at risk of being lost forever” due to the conflict.

Syria, they reiterated, is in tatters. Conservative estimates say at least 10,000 children have died from the war, and for those who manage to find refuge in neighboring countries, living conditions are bleak. Lebanon, a country of 4.4 million, has received almost 1 million refugees from the conflict. Of those, 435,000 are school-aged children—more than the total number of Lebanese children currently enrolled in public schooling—and nearly 300,000, about 70 percent, remain out of the classroom.

Aid agencies, meanwhile, are struggling to keep pace with the depths of the conflict. Budget shortfalls are a problem; UNICEF’s 2014 plans, for instance, are only 8 percent funded. Even in the rare case that financial issues aren’t present, other obstacles hinder educational programs and psychosocial support. In Lebanon, for example, Syrian children are failing entrance exams for public schools due to substantial differences between the two countries’ curricula, especially in terms of language requirements. “We try to have a lot of them stay in school by having an English program,” said Ali. “It’s a difficult situation.”

Andrea Koppel, vice president of global engagement and policy at Mercy Corps, said at the March 15 press conference, “If we are going to respond to the needs of children here in Lebanon, in Jordan, in Iraq, in Turkey, let alone inside Syria, we need to have the means to do it.” Mercy Corps fundraised in three weeks for Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines what it has in three years for the Syrian war.

One American newspaper editor put it perfectly while we were drinking a beer in Beirut: “We don’t run many Syrian refugee stories anymore. It’s become stale. People are now more and more desensitized to the war.” Even as, he correctly noted, the conflict is getting much worse. The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is projected to top 1.5 million by the end of 2014. That's almost 35 percent of the country’s pre-war population.

For people like Ali who are directly involved in humanitarian work on the field, the question isn’t about funding or awareness—it’s about basic human rights. “We don’t ask for charity," he said. “We ask for their right to education, their right to live, and their right to a childhood. A lot of the international community has forgotten this."