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

Friday - - Front Page - For more in­for­ma­tion, or if you would like to help Start main­tain its art pro­grammes, please visit www.Start­world.org.

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

Chil­dren’s Day

This child takes pride in his work

The Start cen­tre in Mum­bai, In­dia, helps

spe­cial needs and im­pov­er­ished chil­dren

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