Filmmaker Sara Ishaq relates how a four-day art workshop helped give a degree of solace to Yemeni children made homeless by war.
Since March 2015, Yemen has been undergoing an internal and external conflict that has destroyed the country's infrastructure and led to a humanitarian disaster. Thousands of Yemeni men, women and children have been killed or injured, and millions have been displaced and traumatised.
While I was filming areas affected by air strikes, I took part in an art workshop for children who had survived the bombing but lost their homes and relatives, including one or both parents. The workshop included children like 12-year-old Layal, who survived her mother, father and younger brother when an air strike destroyed their home one morning.
The workshop came about after a meeting with Rowaida Al-Khulaidi, from the British Council in Sana'a, as we had both previously expressed an interest in doing a project with children, particularly within the realm of art or film-making. At that point (this was in September 2015), schools had already been on lockdown for seven months, and children were not only deprived of schooling but also of interacting with other children outside of the family home.
We began thinking of who we could include in the workshop. I remembered a scene I had filmed in the Old City of Sana'a of children collecting pieces of furniture from the rubble of their homes in an attempt to rebuild them. Through their parents or relatives, we got in touch with these children and others who were similarly orphaned, traumatised and made homeless by the war. We then put out an open call for people with experience of working with children to volunteer some time to the workshop. I got in touch with Yemeni street artist Murad Subay to see if he'd be interested in getting involved too. He jumped at the opportunity, and so we began planning the structure of the workshop from there.
The random and indiscriminate nature of air strikes in and around Sana'a made it difficult to pinpoint a completely safe area to hold the workshop. Almost everywhere had been targeted at one time or another, and F-16 jets hovered overhead continuously. We ultimately figured that it would be just as safe or dangerous to be at the workshop location as it would be sitting at home, which is the sad and disturbing reality of the war in Yemen.
We agreed that the most important thing was to create a safe space for the children to express their feelings gradually and freely, without applying pressure on them to do so. We tried not to talk about death or the war directly. We made sure all the volunteers understood the circumstances of each of the children to avoid slipping up and asking questions about their families. Some children volunteered this information without being prompted, and we listened to them. However, most of the time, they expressed their fears or sadness through their drawings, and refrained from speaking about their pain.