I'm still playing catch up in the wake of the trip and will soon be writing an account of my time working with Terre des Hommes Italia / Iraq and the IOM / UN Migration Agency.
For now, I invite you to visit my social media feeds and view content posted from the field.
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.