Of the total 4.3 million refugees from Syria, one quarter are currently living in Lebanon, most in quasi-legal camps located within sight of the eastern border. With little-to-no government support for the refugees, NGOs like the Kayany Foundation have had to provide for basic needs. They’ve built schools within the camps to give children some sense of normalcy and a path towards a meaningful future. In late 2014 and again in early 2016, Kayany provided support for WAR-TOYS and facilitated a series of art-based interviews and group activities with children at their schools. Despite the gravity of the subject matter (and sometimes harsh weather outside), the interview sessions with the girls and boys were positive, empowering, and energetic thanks to the involvement of Lebanese Art Therapist Myra Saad. The children, from both middle and lower class families, came from Homs, Aleppo, and smaller communities throughout Syria. Many of them had seen extreme, personal hardship and witnessed horrific acts of violence. A few even had bullet scars and other signs of physical trauma. The things they experienced came through in the drawings, often very directly. Brian worked in and around the camps, sometimes with a crowd of young onlookers, to recreate the children's accounts.
Despite being geographically small, Lebanon is at the crossroads of several armed conflicts. Many children within its borders – both refugees and native Lebanese alike – have seen extreme hardship and violence. It will take many more trips to fully represent perspectives from the diverse communities living within. To lay the groundwork, art based interviews and group activities were conducted with Iraqi children at the Amel Community Center for Refugees, Palestinian children inside the Chatila Refugee Camp, and Lebanese children under the care of the Nader Association for Delinquent Enfant Rehabilitation outside of Tripoli. Boys there have witnessed and even participated in long-drawn-out fighting between Alawite and Sunni Muslim sects, some with ties to ISIS. One boy created a drawing of the ISIS flag with his name added under Muhammad’s. On the back, he showed himself destroying the Lebanese army with a hidden cache of weapons. Another boy, more resistant to sharing, at first acted out. Art Therapist Myra Saad remained patient and calm. She countered his fear of being vulnerable – manifested as anger – with a simple request: draw why you fight. The hastily scribbled image of the burning heart is the result. While talking about what it represented - passion for his sect and hatred for anyone that would dare go against it - he opened up more and more about his experiences fighting and, finally, how much he missed his mother. The image of the burning heart and boy fighting the Lebanese army were recreated outside of Tripoli, not far from Nader.
WAR-TOYS collaborations in the Gaza Strip were supported by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Work began in November 2012 amid escalating violence between Israel and Hamas. The fighting was all too common for boys at the Al-Fakhura Preparatory School inside the Jabaliya Refugee Camp. During an art-based interview, most shared personal accounts of the things they had seen and feared – death and destruction from airstrikes, fisherman fired upon, and family members killed. An interview with girls at the Asma Elementary School in Gaza City showed that their experiences were no different. In their drawn accounts, many incorporated mothers and babies alongside scenes of extreme violence and devastation. Others revealed the fear and anxiety that they felt on a daily basis. Brian experienced some of this as he traveled the territory to recreate the children’s accounts using locally found toys. The situation between Israel and Hamas continued to deteriorate with airstrikes and incursions being traded for outbound rocket and mortar attacks. Completing as much as he could, Brian left Gaza on the first day of what would become “Operation Pillar of Defense.” In the eight days that followed, approximately 1500 sites within Gaza were targeted by Israeli shells and aircraft, killing 133 and wounding 840. While in Jerusalem afterwards, Brian photographed a toy from Gaza at the Dome of the Rock. The location appeared in several drawings spawned from the question, "What do you hope for in the future."
With support from the Israel Trauma Coalition and psychologist Dr. Benjamin Epstein, children in the Israeli town of Sderot contributed to the WAR-TOYS project in late 2012. Art based interviews began in the first hours of a ceasefire that ended a period of escalated conflict between Israel and Gaza known as "Operation Pillar of Defense.” Boys and girls who had been unable to evacuate were still sheltering in community bunkers, afraid to leave. In the eight days prior, 1456 rockets and mortars had been fired from Gaza (less than 2 km away) into Israel, many hitting in or nearby the town. The artwork created by the children focused largely on “Qassam” rockets and the associated fears. As the ceasefire held and life began returning to normal, additional interviews were conducted at the AMIT Torani Mada'i School on the second day that classes resumed. Both the boys’ and girls’ drawings expressed anxiety over the near-constant threat of attack, even during times of relative calm. One boy shared his fear of a bus exploding. The week before, a bomb was remotely detonated on a public bus in Tel Aviv. To recreate the children's accounts, Brian worked in and around the town of Sderot as well as the actual sight of the bus bombing.
WAR-TOYS began in 2011 with support from the Spafford Children’s Center in East Jerusalem. They were the first NGO to take a chance on then-unproven project and allow access to staff and children under their care. Operating continuously since 1925, the center primarily serves Palestinian children and families, many of whom live in outlying areas. Art based interviews were integrated into an existing psychosocial program, and children were invited to share their perspectives. Many of their drawings showed actual events that the boys and girls had witnessed, while others focused on lingering fears – fears of attack, fears of imprisonment, fears of losing their family. Pictures were filled with missiles, soldiers, tanks, planes, and the dead, often mixed together with nationalistic themes. Children inside the Dheisheh Refugee Camp near Bethlehem created very similar drawings. Thanks to an introduction from Spafford, an art-based interview was organized with local children at the Ibdaa Cultural Center. The artwork they created often dealt with deeply personal events alongside accounts of youth resistance against incursions into the camp. To recreate the accounts, Brian traveled the West Bank and photographed at locations well-known to the children, including the Kalandia Checkpoint, the narrow streets of Dheisheh, the Arab Quarter of the Old City, and along the separation barrier.