A charity is using art to help child refugees and orphans across the Middle East and India.
Art is being used as a tool to help youngsters who are victims of war and to educate disadvantaged and special needs children across the Middle East and India. Anthea Ayache reports
T he wooden table was strewn with colourful pieces of paper and polystyrene cups filled with paint-polluted water. Around the table, in this small refugee camp classroom on the outskirts of Beirut, Palestinian children sat huddled together, their faces a picture of concentration as they dipped their brushes into their paint palettes.
As they painted varying shades and strokes on their white paper sheets, a power cut plunged the room into darkness. Unlike many classrooms where squeals of delight would fill the air on the assumption that the class would be called to a halt, the daily power cut in this room elicited only the sound of despair.
“Well a power cut isn’t going to stop us,” the art teacher announced, placing pre-prepared candles along the table.
“I’m staying, the children are staying – are you?” the centre coordinator asked Nicola Lee, operations director for Dubai-based foundation Start.
“You couldn’t get me out of here if you tried,” she replied, smiling as she hunkered down to help the kids under the low, orange light.
Nicola, 28, was visiting to see the free art workshops Start provides to more than 1,200 orphans and refugee children across Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and now India every week.
In these centres, youths who have suffered at the hands of conflict, loss and poverty are helped to heal through art – a subject that is not only educational, but also encourages self-expression.
“We use art as a medium for education, but also as a means to enhance creativity and boost selfconfidence,” says Nicola.
“It helps these children heal. It’s not just about art itself but what you can learn from learning art. The social interaction with other children that’s involved and learning how to engage with peers, adults, volunteers and artists. It’s those skills that nourish the children in our workshops.”
This ethos to educate and empower children through artistic expression has been at the heart of the foundation since its establishment in 2007 by Art Dubai and the UK-based charity The Al Madad Foundation, an organisation that seeks to promote literacy and education for disadvantaged children globally.
Initially the organisation was only in the UAE, providing special needs centres with five to six weekly arts and craft workshops, an initiative that remains a focus of its work.
“Our mission is to use art to educate and enable children to have a brighter life, where they can express themselves in a way they wouldn’t necessarily have had the opportunity to use before,” says Nicola.
E mirati Mahbouba Mohammad, Start UAE’s workshop coordinator, says, “We have two types of workshops here. One is in schools and special needs centres where our work is scheduled into the curriculum; the other is afternoon workshops for children who want to be involved but aren’t enrolled in those specific schools. We also hold large workshops for up to 50 people at weekends in art studios.”
Start’s national workshops proved to be such a resounding success
‘Our job will never be done, because there will always be more children we can reach’
that it was decided to roll out the concept to disadvantaged children in the region, Starting in 2010 with Amman, Jordan and followed by Beirut, Lebanon and then Palestine in 2011.
“The Al Madad Foundation, like us, wanted to give back to disadvantaged Middle Eastern children,” says Nicola. “Some don’t go to school, they haven’t got a house, they have lost parents and been displaced by war.”
L aunching its regional workshops just before the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, Start has since seen a huge influx of damaged children, predominantly Syrian, seeking the art centres as solace from the tragedies of war.
At no time since Start was established has its philosophy of allowing children to be children been so important. “Often these kids receive no art education,” says Nicola. “In Lebanon a lot of the kids we’re working with have no education at all and we’re the only educational programme they receive.”
Aware of the importance of providing all children with schooling, the Start team will profile each new location and subsequently partner with aid organisations already offering education to disadvantaged children on the ground, combining art with the formal subjects already being taught.
“We give them that freedom of creativity,” says Nicola. “We assist them with maths and English through a creative medium.” While Mahbouba adds, “It’s a visual learning method – we give them raw materials and tell them to paint something beginning with an ‘A’, like an apple. It gives them the freedom to create and learn simultaneously.” In each location the organisation has one person on the ground delivering 10 to 13 workshops a week. These managers have the responsibility to create a safe space in which children, often heavily damaged by their experiences, can learn art, how to interact socially, how to be open-minded and crucially, can begin to trust people again.
“Start reaches these children with the most important things that they have – their dreams, their feelings and their ideas,” says Ola Abu Rajooh, Start’s Jordan manager, who runs weekly classes for refugees and orphans in their seven hugely popular locations in and around the capital, Amman.
The number of attendees across the board is testament to their success in regional centres. “Our classes tend to be from 30 children upwards,” Nicola says. “But we’ve taught workshops with 100 children before. More so now with the influx of Syrian refugees, we’ve had a huge surge in the intake of children.”
Referring to the popularity of the classes in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, which are run on a yellow bus in conjunction with Vision Rescue, a charity working to feed and educate India’s street kids, Nicola says, “I have never seen so many people try to get on one bus, because it’s on a first-come-first-served basis. They all queue up and if they don’t get on, they peer through the window and try to do what the kids inside are doing. The education is only on the bus, but of course we do what we can for the kids outside and [Vision Rescue] always give all the kids food.”
The charity is relied upon by many children who have little chance to escape abject poverty, so the Start programme directors are desperate to not let any child down. But in some areas, space and funding is tying their hands. “We don’t want to turn anyone away,” says Nicola. “So we rely heavily on volunteers to help the programme and help us accommodate the kids and give them the one-on-one attention that so many of them crave.”
W ith that focus on building self-esteem and equipping children with confidence, Start also ensures that children’s artistic achievements are celebrated. Every six months a cumulative exhibition is held in every Start location, and parents and community members are invited.
“The kids are so proud,” says Nicola. “They take you by the hand and are so excited to show you which ones they have drawn.”
Mahbouba adds, “We always encourage and praise them when they finish an art piece, whether it’s perfect or not. Our aim is not to have a beautiful image at the end of the day, it’s about the process they go through to get to that point.
“Some kids join us not being able to hold a pencil and they don’t understand what a colour is, so when they reach a point where they not only understand but are able to express themselves in a way they couldn’t with words, you know you’re changing lives.”
Start’s success is clear to see from not only the ever-growing enrolment for its workshops, but the enthusiasm of the youngsters to attend. With accounts of children walking through snow to reach classes, sitting drawing by candlelight when the power grid fails, or queuing to ensure a place in a room that offers them a few hours of creative escapism, it’s no wonder the organisation wants to expand.
“We want to open more and more [centres],” says Nicola. “Unfortunately our job will never be done, because there will always be more children we can reach.
“We are changing children’s lives. To hear them say ‘we love this class, we love the artist and we want to come every day’ and to see them queue outside waiting for us to get there – that’s what touches you.
“I think I speak for all Start employees and volunteers when I say that we know we’re making a difference.”
Even power cuts don’t stop eager children from learning
Start Palestine celebratesWorld
This child takes pride in his work
The Start centre in Mumbai, India, helps
special needs and impoverished children