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Refugee children in Lebanon find freedom in art

“The Kids of Mishwar,” a recent exhibition in Beirut, gave refugee children the opportunity to express themselves through art.

BEIRUT — The children running around Sarvam Yoga's studio in Beirut breathlessly explained to visitors the meaning and inspiration behind the photographs and drawings they had made. For most of them, the event organized by Mishwar, a Lebanon-based Scottish NGO, is the first time their artworks had been displayed and their creativity acknowledged.

The Kids of Mishwar,” an exhibition held April 13-14 and sponsored by the German Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, provided a platform for predominately Syrian refugee children to showcase their creations, which reflect the depth and complexity of this often stereotyped and misunderstood group. Nearly half of the nearly 1 million registered Syrian refugees currently live in Lebanon, and they are largely marginalized.

Mishwar, founded in 2016, runs a variety of cultural workshops and activities for some 250-300 Palestinian and Syrian children living in refugee camps across northern Lebanon and the Bekaa, with an underlying focus on mental health.

“We work on creative projects with kids as a form of psycho-social support,” Tony Collins, founder and director of Mishwar, told Al-Monitor. “There is a link between art, music, yoga and sport because they are all geared towards letting kids become free and to relieve them of the stress they lived through.” 

“The kids loved the chance to represent themselves,” Collins said. “They feel really proud. It's such a good psychological state for them because they worked for this. They created this, and now they can stand by it.”

The exhibition not only showcased artworks by the children, but also included a screening of “My Childhood as a Refugee,” a short documentary combining interviews with Syrian refugees and drawings by the children. The film covers issues ranging from the effects of war to dream jobs and leaves the impression of the children as complex individuals, who, although experiencing great hardships, have passions and interests beyond the realm of the politics that affect them.

Hanna, a 10-year-old from Homs, drew a picture inspired by a Mishwar trip to a river near the Tal Abbas refugee camp, in northern Lebanon, in which her family and friends are depicted dancing. “I was extremely happy,” Hanna told Al-Monitor. “My parents went with me and swam and ate and danced.… I found it really fun to draw it, and since I wasn’t going to school, I liked spending time drawing.”

Other works at the exhibition also featured favorite places and hobbies. Anwar, a 14-year-old Syrian, photographed his brother in the reflection of a small puddle at a football stadium near the Tal Abbas camp.

“[My brother and I] often go there, to the stadium,” Anwar told al-Monitor. “And if there is nothing going on, we go to the playground outside. My dream is to be a football player.”

Despite the general optimism in the children’s work, darker aspects were also evident. The drawings often depict the dangerous journey to Lebanon and the toll of the Syrian civil war.

Lubada, a 12-year-old Syrian, made a collage of her experience during the conflict in her homeland. “The planes are bombing the houses, and the tanks are breaking the shop windows,” she explained to Al-Monitor. “The people are running away and are dying in the streets.” She added that her house was bombed during the war.

Patrick Sfeir, a Mishwar staff member and animator who assisted the children with the film, spoke about the tension between focusing on the joy the children have and acknowledging the difficulties they face.

“We started the project six months ago,” Sfeir told Al-Monitor. “I wanted to talk to them about moving to Lebanon and also the war, how it affected them and how it changed them. But most importantly, I wanted them to focus on the positive aspects as well, because I lived this as a kid, too.”

Sfeir had fled Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). Now, as a young adult, he is trying to help other child refugees.

“My conditions were very different. I think I had better conditions,” Sfeir said. “But it was important for me to realize that during the tough moments in life, stuff is still happening. [The children] are getting an education in Lebanon. They were not learning anything in Syria. There are also activities here that expand their world.”

Sfeir also acknowledged that the children still face restrictions and difficulties. “For me [the film] is also about the condition of living in Lebanon,” he remarked. “It is a very tough place for them.… I know these kids are struggling a lot with the conditions they are living in and a lack of money.”

For the exhibition, Collins emphasized, Mishwar wanted to let the children have the final say in all the work shown. “We don’t control what subjects they want to focus on,” he explained. “We don’t ask them to tell us about the war or ask them about tough things.… They touch on sensitive issues, but they are kids. We are not trying to bring out traumatic things for them.”

Collins mentioned how the pervasiveness of war and violence sometimes results in children internalizing it. Citing one example, he remarked, “I was with a kid in an art class, and she was drawing these images of war and destruction [in Syria], and I asked, ‘When did you come to Lebanon?’ It turned out she came here when she was one, and she is six now. So I asked if she remembered the war. She didn’t remember the war. She was drawing what other people were drawing.”

Collins added, “We all have the ability to create beautiful things. We don’t want people to just talk about war and dramatic [issues].” By letting the children speak for themselves, the exhibition was not restricted to reflections on the horror of conflict, but it also did not exclude the impact of war on the children’s lives. In the documentary, Lubada was asked what message she wanted to send to the world. “I love you,” she replied. “I love you, but put an end to war.” 

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