Throughout history, art has been a respite for many who lived through trauma. Refugees live their lives in an almost constant state of precarity. Refugee children typically have a higher rate of experiencing many mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Art for refugees can help them express their feelings, grow in self-confidence, and develop problem-solving skills. There are a number of art initiatives which aim to help refugees cope with psychological stressors. Some are located in refugee camps, while others are located in resettlement cities, but they all have the same goal of providing an outlet for expression. Some such initiatives are listed below.
The Za’atari Project
The Za’atari Project is an art therapy program started by Joel Artista in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. Za’atari is composed of Syrian refugees. This project serves as a bridge between the Jordanian and the Syrian communities and serves as a way to foster further understanding.
Adult artists and educators team up to create programs to enhance the lives of children living in refugee camps. These programs are both expressive and educational. They teach children about topics such as health and hygiene all while fostering healthy ways of articulating feelings. These projects include painting murals, wheelbarrows, tents and kites that allow the children to play.
The Exile Voices Project
Exile Voices is a project started by renowned photographer, Reza. This project offers a photography program to refugees in the age group of 11 to 15 in the Kawergosk camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. Exile Voices aims to tell refugee stories through the voices of refugees themselves.
Partnered with the UNHCR, Reza set out to empower these children on how to use the most powerful tool that they have–their own voice. Photographs from many children in the Kawergosk camp were lined along the Seine River in Paris, France in 2015 to show people the importance of art for refugees.
Art for Refugees in Lebanon
In 2017, 1 out of every 6 people in Lebanon was a Syrian refugee. This put significant pressure on schools to make the resources available for education. To tackle rising tensions in schools, the Skoun Association started an art therapy program within schools to help refugee and Lebanese students express themselves in healthy ways.
The art therapy program allows the students to overcome the trauma they experienced and helps to strengthen social bonds. It allows students to see themselves as children first. It also helps them forget the places of disconnect.
The Amsterdam Painting Project
In Amsterdam, refugees are housed in the Bijlmerbajes prison. The Amsterdam Painting Project aims to turn the prison space into something more welcoming, one that is full of renewed hope and life. This project aspires to serve as a bridge within the community and empower refugees to become more involved with one another.
The project was founded by Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn. These two Dutch artists set out to promote community art by improving living conditions. The Project is funded by the Favela Painting Foundation, a group that has also completed projects in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Florence, Italy.
Clothes, food, shelter and other basic necessities will always be required in refugee camps or in resettlement cities. There is, however, also a need to ensure the mental wellbeing of refugees and create an outlet for them to share their experiences. Art is an excellent way to create this outlet. It allows refugees to tell their own stories and to express themselves productively. Most importantly, the idea of ‘art for refugees’ is one of the most effective ways to heal those minds that have been traumatized for a long period of time.
– Isabella Niemeyer