Voices

How art helped these children traumatised by war

By Sara Ishaq

03 February 2016 - 05:09

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.

The children exhibited signs of trauma and anxiety, and their drawings and paintings reflected this. One of the children kept urging me not to close any of the windows or the glass door in the room where the workshop was taking place in case there was an air strike. He was worried that the glass would shatter over everyone. He said this in a very matter-of-fact way, which surprised me but also made me realise what occupied the minds of these children, even while they were absorbed in drawing and painting. It was a very sad thing to witness in one so young.

I noticed that after the first day of activities, the children began to mingle more, laugh more and behave like children again – some quicker than others. On the first day, they seemed quite edgy, but as time passed, they became more immersed in games, artistic activities and playing together. Many came from different socio-economic backgrounds and would normally never meet or play together, but the way they connected during the workshop was inspiring. They all had one thing in common – they had all lost their homes and relatives in the war.

The sad thing about the workshop ending was the knowledge that these children would return to their new reality of being homeless and living in danger under continuing air strikes. However, for what it was worth, they left the four-day workshop with a spring in their steps and their new art kits, which we gave away to all the children who participated. Hopefully they'll continue drawing and painting.

It would be naive to think that a four-day workshop could have any long-lasting benefits or suddenly change the lives of these children for the better. However, I am still in touch with a few of them and their parents via social media, and they still remember the workshop with fondness – a few even said they were the best days of their lives. I only wish such activities could be available to all children on a regular basis, indefinitely.

We had been quite nervous about how to manage the children, considering what they had gone through. But the reality of the situation was that the children inspired us all through their positive attitudes, laughter, playfulness, strength and sheer happiness to be doing something other than sitting at home listening to air strikes. In a time of crisis such as the one in Yemen, children need to feel like they haven't been forgotten.

Find out more about the British Council's work in the arts.

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