I arrived in East Jerusalem in February of 2011 to begin work on the WAR-TOYS project. The Spafford Children’s Center, located in the Arab Quarter of the Old City, graciously offered me access to boys and girls under their care. Operating since 1925, the center primarily serves Palestinian children and families, many of whom live in outlying areas.
Within a matter of days, I got to observe my first art therapy sessions with children undergoing treatment at Spafford. Many of their drawings showed actual events that the children 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 at the Ibdaa Cultural Center inside the Dheisheh Refugee Camp created very similar drawings. Thanks to an introduction from Spafford, I was invited to observe a specially organized session with local girls and boys. The artwork they created often dealt with deeply personal events alongside accounts of youth resistance against incursions into the camp.
Armed with the children’s drawings, I roamed the crowded, open-air markets of East Jerusalem and auditioned each toy I could find. For a few shekels, I bought the same Chinese-made playsets found in most dollar stores in the US. These toys became my cast of characters and representations of people from the children’s lives.
To recreate their accounts, I 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.
Extra thanks goes to Paul Vester, St. Lawrence University, Irene Kotlarz, Dr. Jantien Dajani, the Spafford Children's Center and its staff, Montaser Alul, the Ibdaa Cultural Center and its staff, Catherine Tedford, Manfrotto / Gitzo, PhotoFlex, Miruna Garabet, Slien Joia, Julie Land, Yousef Hammad, Bill Colitre, and the individual contributors that so generously gave their support.