I returned to Lebanon in February 2016, a little over a year since my first trip there, to continue focusing on the Syrian crisis and the perspectives of some of its youngest victims. I partnered once again with brilliant Art Therapist Myra Saad and the Kayany Foundation. In the time I was away, Kayany opened three additional schools for Syrian refugees, including one built with a grant from The Malala Fund, and Myra’s art therapy studio Artichoke expanded and relocated into Beirut’s main economic and diplomatic hub known as Hamra.
Myra and I spent three weeks traveling back and forth from Beirut to refugee camps situated on Lebanon's eastern border with Syria. The travelog posts below chronicle (in reverse order) the art-based interviews that remain at the core of WAR-TOYS as well as a something new that we decided to try. The Kayany Foundation provided an opportunity for Myra and I to build a multi-day workshop for two groups of Syrian refugee children from their schools.
The workshop was an experiment and deviation from the established WAR-TOYS process, meant to engage the boys and girls in more collaborative, hands on activities. Because of risks to the children - both psychological and safety - they typically do not accompany me when I photograph found toys on location. The photo seen above with the young child looking through the viewfinder is a rare exception and result of shooting something with a positive theme within the refugee camp. Anything with violence would naturally be upsetting and irresponsible to share with local children in this way.
The workshop was a way to better involve the children and refocus them on abstract concepts over actual, witnessed events. Myra created a program that culminated in the children collaboratively designing and building two city dioramas - "one "bad" and one "good" - using recycled materials and art supplies. While the workshop sessions did lead to a few specific WAR-TOYS photos as well as photos documenting the dioramas, the primary goal was to provide activities that promoted resilience and challenged the children to envision a peaceful future.
In-between (and often before-and-after) workshop sessions, I photographed toy setups in and around the refugee camps, mostly in areas just a short walk from Kayany's schools. Better knowing the children as individuals through the workshop, I felt all the more responsible for accurately conveying their perspectives. In the resulting work, I recreated the children's accounts of actual events – barrel bomb attacks and entire neighborhoods destroyed – as well as more abstract elements related to the trauma they experienced – ghosts of dead parents and fears of the war following them to Lebanon.
I'm indebted to the children for sharing their perspectives and giving me the opportunity to witness the results of their time with Art Therapist Myra Saad. As always, Myra gets my extreme gratitude not just for organizing and running these sessions, but also for helping with the production of the photographs. With absolute professionalism, she endured wind, cold, rain, and some very long, challenging days.
My deepest thanks goes to the Kayany Foundation and its entire staff as well as Nora Jumblatt, Aida Shawwaf, Firas Suqi, Bandar Shawwaf, May Mamarbachi, Raya Mamarbachi, Sarah Baba, Arne Dietrich, Ranine Swaid, Manal Bechara, Barbara Griffin, Paul Vester, Judith Rubin, Julia Byers, and everyone residing within the camps for welcoming our presence. My continued thanks to everyone who has supported the project in one way or another!
Instead of attempting to organize and schedule two additional sessions, Art Therapist Myra Saad (Artichoke Studio) and I decided to dedicate a full day to work with our all-girls group from the Malala Yousafzai School. On Sunday, March 3rd the Kayany Foundation gave us use of a classroom while crews were busy setting up for an International Women's Day event the following morning (note some familiar faces in the linked Huffington Post article).
Like their younger peers, the girls in our group (ages 13-16 years old) were eager to get started on the city dioramas they had planned in the previous session. After warming up through games and preliminary discussions, the girls quickly separated into smaller teams, each devoted to a different aspect of the "bad" city they collectively envisioned. The addition of toys - unused, extra props - factored heavily in the girls' designs.
After lunch, the girls reassembled to talk about how they could rebuild their city into something good. Myra steered the conversation to ideas of resilience and rebirth. When the girls separated once again into smaller teams, their dioramas of the city quickly took on more color.
When the girls had finished, their idealized city dioramas fit together to form one collaborative piece. It was a colorful reversal from a world they had envisioned at its worst.
The little extra playground on the end was made by a small, welcomed addition to our group. The girl's mother worked at the school, and the 6-year-old refugee quietly yet confidently staked out a spot to work on her own diorama of a "happy place” guarded by soldiers.
Unlike the younger group - needing to further process their own bad experiences, the older girls seemed especially eager to look past the war. It showed in the energy and effort put into their "good" city dioramas.
The girls were especially proud of their creations and gave very positive feedback on the workshop. One girl who had been hesitant to participate - believing she had no artistic talent, said that the biggest thing she gained is knowledge that she could do a lot more than she thought. That alone made our efforts worthwhile.
After a final round of games and discussion, Myra and I invited the young women to each take a single toy as a memento and reminder of what they were capable of doing. The "Paw Patrol" toys were the first to get snatched up, followed by a few other plastic animals.
Before this group, I had been hesitant to work with children in their teens. My concerns were that they wouldn't be as interested or invested in art-based activities. In some settings that may still be true, but it's obvious to me now that I shouldn't exclude any age group out-of-hand. While older children (as well as adults) are better able to relay their experiences directly through words, most will still have difficulty accessing and expressing the feelings that arise from a factual telling of events. In this, the truth gets lost. War is emotional and deeply personal. It takes a subjective approach to understand on an individual, human level. And it is why art therapy provides such a powerful tool for healing in war's aftermath.
My extreme gratitude goes to all of the children in all of the groups with whom we worked, the Kayany Foundation and its entire staff, Art Therapist Myra Saad, and our interns Ranine Swaid & Manal Bechara. I look forward to another opportunity to work together again.
On March 3rd, Art Therapist Myra Saad (Artichoke Studio) and I returned to the Kayany Foundation's Malala Yousafzai School near the eastern border of Lebanon. We worked with a mixed-gender group of children (8-12 years old) and picked up where we left off in the previous session. It had ended with the children collaboratively designing an idealized "good" city. However, when put to a vote, they decided that it would be better to construct a "bad" city first, then rebuild on top of it the next time we met.
After warmup games and a lengthy discussion, the boys and girls separated into groups, each building a diorama representing a different part of the worst city they could imagine: a destroyed school, park, hospital, and homes...although the lines between each got a little blurry in the final results.
The session ended with discussion away from the cities, more games, and another valiant attempt at guided meditation to the soothing sounds of Enya. A few the children, still needing to vent, made it extra challenging, but as always the boys and girls left with smiles and waves.
In a few fleeting moments before heavy rain began to fall, I grabbed some quick photos of the finished city tiles immediately outside the classroom.
Due to scheduling conflicts, we didn't meet with this group again until the 10th. In that week, I accumulated a lot of toys while planning and shooting WAR-TOYS setups in the area. Often buying a whole set to get a single piece, I had a lot of leftover toys. The extras were brought in for use by this group as well as the older, all-girls group (which will be covered in the next post).
The children were waiting outside the school gate when we arrived. Already excited to start, they were nearly beside themselves after helping us carry in the recycled craft materials, art supplies, and GIANT bag of toys. After a quick round of games to get everyone thinking about working together, Myra had the "bad" cities brought out for discussion. It didn't take long for the boys and girls to form smaller groups and start the transformation.
When the girls and boys were done, Myra assembled the group around their handiwork. Unlike the "bad" city, the children chose to put each of the independent tiles together, forming one creation. Their reconstructed school featured colored blocks surrounding the perimeter and armed guards watching the gate. The park had children playing around a fountain, a river running on one of its corners, and animals running about. What was an amorphous debris-pile of homes and a garden became thriving apartment blocks and a community garden, all with cars going by. The casket was gone from the hospital grounds, replaced by a tower with a fountain and trees in front.
With time running short - too short even for Enya - I unfortunately didn't have an opportunity to take detail shots of the different tiles. Instead, Myra and I decided to end our sessions with the children by inviting each of them to take a memento of their city with the promise that they'd remember what they were capable of creating. As much as we wanted to load the kids up with all of the extra toys, there is a firm protocol in place. To prevent rivalries within the camp between children and families, toys can't be given out directly. They have to come from the school in a manner that is considered fair to everyone. In this case, since the toys represent more than just playthings, we felt right letting the children keep a few.
On the drive back to Beirut, Myra and I talked about the sessions. She remarked that the children may not have been ready for the "good" city. Even through their creations had a very positive effect, she saw that many of the boys and girls still needed to vent and express more of what they had experienced in Syria. As an example, they said how much easier it was to think about destroying than rebuilding. Clearly, there are strong feelings that still need to be processed. While it's easy to feel warm and fuzzy about the children coming together and making something so happy and colorful in these sessions, I don't want to present any false narratives. Their recovery will likely be a long process. I'm grateful that we could help them down that road a little, even more so that the Kayany Foundation will be continuing the work.
My thanks again goes to the amazing children that participated, Myra Saad, everyone at the Kayany Foundation, and intern Ranine Swaid.
From my very first WAR-TOYS trip, I've had few opportunities to work with the same children over multiple sessions. The reasons vary from deteriorating security situations (like in Gaza) to a lack of resources and/or access. Many organizations don't have ongoing psychosocial programs in which to integrate the project, and I wasn't in a position to create temporary workshops to fill in the gaps. To do this, I needed a dedicated art therapist, NGO support, and adequate funding. Happily, this year, everything came together.
The Kayany Foundation provided an opportunity for Art Therapist Myra Saad and I to build a multi-day workshop for two groups of Syrian refugee children from their schools. Rather than continue with an interview-like format, we decided to experiment a little and created a program that culminated in collaborative group projects. Although many of the things shared in these sessions did lead to specific WAR-TOYS photos, that wasn't the goal. We wanted to engage the children in activities that promoted resilience and different ways of thinking. It was a chance to not only validate their perspectives on the past, but also challenge the children to envision a peaceful future.
The core of the workshop was inviting children to collaboratively create two dioramas - one "bad" city and one "good" - using recycled materials and art supplies. The children would begin with the negative then work together to rebuild the positive. Before jumping in and building their dioramas in the second session, in the first, Myra took the groups through a series of activities intended to get them thinking and working with their hands.
Our first group was comprised of girls and boys (8-12 years old) from the Kuzbari-Rotary German School. There were lots of familiar faces from the art-based interviews, conducted a few days before in the same classroom at the Malala Yousafzai School. After assembling the group and loosening them up with games, Myra set them on their first task: sculpt a creature with a positive super power. The results were as varied and colorful as one might expect with a lot of the children creating things that had a protective role. There were monster eaters and several magical items, including a flower that could fill everything around it with blooms and beautiful smells.
With these powerful totems symbolically protecting them, the children were next asked to start visualizing "bad" cities through individual drawings. Many shared accounts of the places they had fled, while others imagined what Syria must be like now - filled with ghosts of dead soldiers and monsters roaming the streets. Mixed in with ghouls and other fictional creatures were people shot in the head. Clearly, the children were invoking their own memories and strong emotions behind thinly-veiled facades. In one drawing, the ghosts of dead parents still waited at home.
Instead of next asking the children to collaborate on one large "bad" city design (as had been planned), Myra sensed that the boys and girls needed something more positive to focus on for the second half of the session. She didn't want to leave the them with negative feelings until we met again a few days later and asked that they start working on their collaborative vision of a "good" city.
A large sheet of paper was rolled out, and the boys and girls began working together in earnest, carving out spots for homes, a school, playground, swimming pool, river, and mountains. There were bikes and children on skateboards as well as trees and a happy sun overlooking everything. It was the polar opposite of the individual drawings from earlier. The session ended with a discussion about the inhabitants of the city and an introduction to guided meditation. As much as I like to give Myra grief for the inclusion of Enya, the music really did have a calming effect.
Our second session of the day was a smaller group of Syrian refugee girls (13-16 years old) from the Malala Yousafzai School. Like their younger peers, Myra and I knew most of them from our art-based interviews a few days before. Unlike the other group, they insisted that I participate in the warmup games (hence the lack of photos/footage). This goading to join in would become the norm in all of the sessions going forward, and for as many photos as I missed taking, I gained a lot more personally by participating. Gaps in the travelog are a small price to pay.
After the warmup, Myra modified the instructions for the older group and asked the girls to sculpt something that represented a positive aspect of themselves rather than create a fictional character. The results were powerful and varied, including representations of inner beauty (flower basket), a strong voice (mouth), Palestinian heritage (flag), and being a survivor (stick figure and airstrike).
The girls were then asked to start thinking about "bad" places and create a drawing that captured what it looked like to them. Like the first group, many shared deeply personal accounts and feelings tied to Syria. Seen below, one girl drew about running from tanks while family members were left behind and killed. Another showed the destruction of her once-beautiful neighborhood and wondered what, if anything, she had to go back to. Looking past the war, there was also a drawing of a woman being denied an education (diploma in middle) and forced to remain silent - her mouth sewn shut.
After reassembling and checking in with the group, Myra let them decide what they'd like to collaboratively work on next - the "good" city or "bad." The girls chose to tackle the bad together, supporting each other as they debated and partitioned a single design across a large sheet of paper. In their city, children watched as people were killed in front of them, homes were destroyed, schools were closed, people were tortured and shot, and mothers cried for their dead husbands and children.
Through a lengthy discussion about the city and its inhabitants, it was clear that this was a world that the girls knew well. There's a reason they and their families left their homes to become refugees.
The next time we met, the girls would create dioramas based on their shared experiences, then transform them into something good. The results, seen in both their creations and the young women themselves, were remarkable to experience. As always, I look forward to sharing it.
The session came to a close with another round of Myra's carefully designed games and my pressured participation. A hastily placed GoPro managed a few frames where I might have been caught having a lot of fun. Especially in places like this, it's important to laugh and occasionally make a fool of oneself. Happily, I was in great company.
My thanks once again to the amazing children that participated, the Kayany Foundation, wonderful interns Ranine Swaid & Manal Bechara, and of course Myra Saad. Without her hard-earned talent and experience, this program wouldn't have been possible.