Charity tries art therapy to heal refugee kids’ trauma

Charity tries art therapy to heal refugee kids’ traumaimage

05 Oct 2015

A recent charity mission to a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon left a deep impression on Singapore permanent resident Laurence Vandenborre.

Like how a game of football among children could turn violent.

There were days when volunteers spent more time stopping fights than playing with the displaced children, she said. “If a kid had the ball and another child snatched it, sometimes, they would throw stones at each other.”

Such behaviour is a result of the “high level of emotional trauma” the children have experienced, and it is a problem Mrs Vandenborre and The Red Pencil – the Singapore-based charity she founded in 2011 – are trying to heal through art therapy.

Last month, a team of 11 art therapists and volunteers completed their two-week trip to the camp in Lebanon – which shares a border with Syria in the north, and east.

Five of the team members are from Singapore, and the rest are from countries such as Australia and the United States.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group has been battling government forces in Syria for the past four years. More than 200,000 people have died, and over three million refugees have fled to neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

At the camp, the team conducted art therapy workshops for over 200 refugees, mostly children and teenagers. The idea was to let the children express their pain and anger on paper, in the hope that this will allow them to release these negative emotions.

Some drawings by the children were filled with images of bodies lying on the ground, said Mrs Vandenborre. Other children “applied strong pressure when drawing, ripping off pages, and throwing out their work”, said art therapist Valeria Koutmina, who was among those who went on the trip.

But such displays were cathartic for the victims.

“After working through the challenges, each child was able to produce at least one complete and coherent piece of art. Over time, the creative process became much more organised, and less chaotic,” Ms Koutmina said.

Ms Lamia Masri, a child protection coordinator at the Kayany Foundation – a Lebanon-based charity that helps Syrian refugee children – said: “The Red Pencil’s work is very interesting, and essential for the refugees. We got a lot of good feedback from them.”

Apart from working with children, the charity also trained the children’s mothers and teachers in basic art therapy skills – after getting over the initial culture shock, and the disorganisation on the ground.

“It was chaos… There wasn’t even a list of all the children in the camp,” said Mrs Vandenborre.

The Red Pencil has made humanitarian trips to about 20 countries, typically those affected by natural disasters, but this was its first foray into a conflict zone. Its work there, however, is far from done.

The Red Pencil – which also offers its services to hospitals, schools and welfare groups in Singapore – will make at least two more trips to the camp, in December and March next year, to follow up with the children and their caregivers.

When asked about safety issues, Mrs Vandenborre said the charity sent people to assess the dangers involved before the trip. They returned, and gave it the green light.

“We would never put our art therapists in danger,” said Mrs Vandenborre, who was born in Belgium. She added that evacuation plans were put in place and the therapists’ embassies were also informed. But why take the risk?

Mrs Vandenborre said that while meeting basic needs such as food and water is important, addressing the refugees’ emotional needs is critical too.

“Our charity’s role is to take care of the human being, to make people ready for when large organisations like the Red Cross eventually leave,” she added.

She said her charity will be working with a few researchers, including Nanyang Technological University psychology professor Andy Ho, to do more scientific studies on the effectiveness of art therapy.

Said Mrs Vandenborre: “Once you have built the strength and resilience in a person, it will help him for the rest of his life. The conflict may continue but the person will be able to face it.”