Wednesday, July 24, 2013

ARCK Founder and Director, Sara Mraish Demeter, Leads Workshop for Syrian Refugees in Jordan

ARCK in Jordan: Storytelling Through Art

ARCK's Founder and Director, Sara Mraish Demeter, is committed to using visual art to promote compassion and understanding beyond Boston. She and collaborator, Noor Doukmak, lead a week long "Storytelling Through Art" workshop for Syrian refugee youth in Jordan earlier this month.

July 1st: Monday

We are working with about 25 Syrian refugees youth from the Zarqa area (between the ages of 7 and 16, boys and girls). The workshop will run for a week from 9am to 1pm. Most of the children came from the Family Guidance and Awareness Center at the Zaa’tari refugee camp in New Zarqa. We are going to drive two hours a day for a week from Amman (the capital of Jordan) to Zarqa getting up at 6 am to get ready and be there on time. In Zarqa, more or less a desert region, the weather is hotter than in the cooler mountainous area of Amman.

We are working with director Kother Khalafat and we have met with Naida Bushanaq, a woman of amazing vision who founded this center in 1982. We also have the support of Khoula Abu Raya. Noor Doukmak, Manal Mraish, Layla Tarboosh, Zena Dadouch, Muhammed Al Jabour, Liea and Zara from Florida. Sara Mraish Demeter were the mentors, and our guest artist is Muhammed Abu Aziz.

On the first day, we had an incredibly invigorating experience. The children were very shy and polite, but with eyes eager to learn something new. We started with an introduction that went very well, asking everyone to repeat the names they heard before their turn and to make a comment or a movement. We had them draw whatever they liked on their hand- made name tags. They enjoyed this exercise because it made them feel more relaxed. We had them draw different parts of the body on tri-folded 11 x 8 paper. Each child drew one part of the body. First one child would draw the face, then fold the paper over and have the next child draw the torso, and then the third child the legs. They were free to draw various parts of the body, whether of humans or animals or whichever they liked, and each group of children collaborated together. We called this exercise “weird body.” It is also called “exquisite corpse” and is often practiced in poetry workshops as well. In the next activity we gave the kids two pieces of drawing paper for them to draw facial portraits, one with eyes opened and once with eyes closed.

It is our hope that children learned from these two activities to enjoy the freedom to express oneself as a great way to get rid of fear. We noticed that they shed their inhibitions and worked with steadfast determination and concentration. They were able to share and collaborate with each other and be a part of the community. During the activities we found that the children have not only the desire to draw and paint but also the imagination and sense of innovation and the love of learning.

In a third exercise, what we call the bananas exercise, we asked children to figure out how to lift several bananas (three, four, five, or six) at least five centimeters off the ground using only three sheets of 11x 8 paper. We were surprised how many kids quickly learned to do this exercise with such creativity and innovation.

After the first day of such activities, we were happy to see the kids feel comfortable enough to share their ideas and freely express their opinions and observations. 

July 2nd: Tuesday 

the second day of our workshop the children pleasantly surprised us by bringing their friends and cousins to attend the workshops. True, they had asked permission to bring their friends and cousins to these workshops, but it was still a surprise. It was also a bit challenging, because we had four more kids in attendance and the circle got bigger.

Some of the exercises today were truly amazing. Manal Mraish, our mentor volunteer, told the story of “the solar woman” in Jordan who left her Badouin village to attend a six-month training in India to learn how to use special tools to help build solar systems in her village. Manal said that when the solar woman came back she was able to transfer the knowledge to the women in her village and get the environmental ministry to help her find funding to get her newly found program started. She was able to persevere and had an amazing ambition that led her to go leave her kids and husband (against her husband’s wishes at first) for six months. She was very proud.

The children at the center listened carefully to Manal’s story. Sitting in a circle, they asked questions and retold the story, and then they were asked to draw what they learned or remembered from the story. Most of them went really deep into drawing and labeling items related to the story, such as fires, clay pots, and sunlight, and some drew pictures of the Badouin tents with new light and energy radiating from the tent to indicate that the solar had been installed. Some students went on to use illustration to depict the difficult time when the woman was trying to convince her husband to let her leave--and some even asked for writing paper so that they could describe what happened next, all the way to the final success at the end.

This exercise helped promote imagination, ambition, literacy, visual communication, illustration, knowledge of the old history and heritage, and the awareness that some people live and survive and keep their traditional cultures in this modern world of lost culture and history. They learned how to share a story and collaborate with their peers and exchange their illustrations by retelling the story. They also learned that it’s important to share what they learned in this program with their friends and families.

We also hosted a guest artist, Muhammed Abu Aziz, who shared with the children the meaning of visual art in Arabic. It was nice, since the children related some of the topics to real life examples and learned about a brief description of color theory.

July 3rd: Wednesday

Today we introduced ourselves by saying our names and spelling out our names in Arabic and shared what we all did at home. Then we all visited the library that the center has in another room. Students voted on two books to read: One was titled “The Beauty Race” and the other was “The Lost Bee”. We went back to our big open area and sat in a circle and some students volunteered and read each book by rotating to read one page or two at a time. We mentors asked questions about what students read and had a discussion. Then we told them they can go back to their tables and sketched one image or two from what they liked or remembered from hearing both stories read aloud.

Then, it was time to use Tempera paint with water (they called it watercolor but we used more suitable paint (nontoxic) for kids to use Tempera paint that is washable). They learned about colors and how to mix primary colors to get secondary ones. The children were very excited to start painting with paint using water and brushes—they tried to paint their sketches. Then, we took our usual break and each mentor sat in on one round table with the children to be able to talk to them on a more casual and humble way—we were able to have more intimate conversation- a girl told me, “We planted almost everything in my house in Syria, but we had to leave everything behind.”

The trust the kids had for us mentors grew tremendously and an amazing comfort came out of most of the kids. Almost all asked us to take paper and colors home, so they can continue what drawing and telling stories to bring the next day to share at circle time.

July 4th: Thursday

We came to the Family Guidance and Awareness Center in Zarqa, Jordan. We arrived at around 8:30 am. We saw all the children waiting for us in the vestibule of the building. They were very excited to see us and greeted us with hugs coupled with the customary kisses on both cheeks - a showing of the trust that had developed after a few days of them getting to know us. We had became part of the family. Before we even sat in a circle, the children came to us with the borrowed colors from the day before and showed us how proud they were to draw and color their well-expressed images.

Those images from home, were very impressive and progressively improved from the days before. For example, on the first two days, the children drew the Syrian flags and machine guns, then as we explored and discussed their ideas and heard their voices and gave them freedom to tell us what they wanted to share, they came back on the third day with more vivid images of beautiful colored papers with images of flowers, typical houses you would see in Syria and the US and ocean scenes.

One volunteer/mentor, 9th grade from a local school in Amman, who commuted every day from Amman to Zarqa said, ”The daily circle introduction allowed kids to speak freely and every opinion is very important and valued in itself.” She continued on, “During teamwork and collaboration, the Syrian refugee’s goal was to rebuild Syria and the hope is there for every child, and their return is inevitable”. “This new positive environment is giving the kids to exchange their ideas and thoughts differently and it's giving them the most important tools to express what they have learned from their own personal experience from fleeing Syria” said Rend Mahmoud Abu-Mahfouth

Later, we did a math game that involved two players with arbitrary cut paper squares based on the Chinese game NIM. I brought in cardboard and foam that I found in the trash near a supermarket. We asked the children to sketch what they would like to build using paper and pencil. Then they formed a group of 4-5 and collaborated on building different buildings- some built their destroyed homes in Syria and some built a hospital where they had seen many injured people go to from the Zaa’tari camp. Some built a citadel that acted as a fortress where the boy said this should be in the middle to protect the city. The buildings came out amazing and beautiful with such meticulous innovation and intricate design. They carved out windows, kids asked to use paint to paint their buildings, they used ribbon found somewhere in the center, they thought of how to support a falling roof, until one girl thought she could use a lever of cardboard to support the two sides of the roof. Some wrote Sara and Noor on the roof, a sign that they would like us to stay with them more.

July 6th, Saturday

We started with our usual circle and everyone shared their names and expressed an interest of reciting a poem or sharing a painting they did at home.

We asked the children if they would like to make a city and make roads -they liked the idea very much - so they built them and we discussed if the buildings should be placed in a circular or in square formation. The majority voted to place the buildings in a square formation — thinking that the square city with cross roads would be more organized.

The final exercise before publishing their storytelling books, involved them to conceptualize their own story without any aide. We asked them to sketch and write their own stories with illustrations. Then the children shared their individual stories with everyone and they demonstrated why they chose that particular story. It was incredible the level of drawing and the writing they did. Most of the kids started to get deep into their stories-- most wrote about the Syrian revolution and about their homes that they left behind. Then we closed our circle with what they did today and reflected on all the amazing work that the children did throughout the week and what we were going to be doing on the next day.

July 7th, Sunday

We started with a circle and listened as the children read poems and proudly displayed drawings that they had brought from home.  We gave participants large paper canvas' (measuring about 17"x24") and asked them to sketch their story first and then to pick one of the medium options of either colored pencils, crayons, markers, or Tempera Paint with brushes.  I realized the positive transformation from where we had started on the first day when the topic of the kids drawings had focused primarily on the revolution flags and machine guns to now drawing positive images such as houses filled with flower gardens and trees. What I see now is the hope and ambition these kids regained from planting the seed of hope for a brighter future.

July 8th, Monday

Driving on the last day to Zarqa, to sadly say goodbye to all the wonderful children and the amazing volunteers - we had a feeling of blessedness and gratefulness of our teams work and were amazed at the resilience those kids showed during the one week long workshop. As we approached in our car, we saw the kids waiting impatiently outside to receive us with hugs and kisses and smiles, willingly to offer their support of any kind. One of the kids said, “we leave the house at 6 am because we want to see you all early and can’t wait to start the program.” They were anxious about that last day, they didn’t want the day to end-- they asked if we were coming back and how they can continue this program.

The staff at the center Khaoula and Qeitha’a,  were always there to offer us support. Isahaq, an incredible supportive man who runs around to bring water and food for us and the kids at break time.
The kids sat under tents on the sidewalk of the center on the last day to explore and read books from the mobile library outside the center-- it looked very impressive. I left for few hours to print the certificates that Mohammed Al-Jabour designed and to print all of the stories they wrote and illustrated into a book with a cover page and credits. I left the kids with Noor to continue drawing and telling stories. It is not an easy task to find a Maktabeh name was Bluemax Center, in Zarqa, Old Garage (Book supplies store with printing capabilities).  The owner of the Book store was very understanding and accommodating.  It was a busy store across from the train tracks in the center of Zarqa.  Many people come to print their basic as well as complicated documents, some come to print supporting documents for travels.  They were so busy that the owner of the store made sure he printed about 25 books and the certificates in about two hours- Meanwhile while the books were printing I was able to use the wifi to work on my own remaining tasks. When they were finished printing, it was time for me to go back and meet the kids towards the end of their departure-- they were waiting for me to arrive and yelled from the third floor to everyone, “Ms. Sara is here, Ms. Sara is here” They were very ecstatic and could not wait to see their finally published books along with a certificate of achievement and participation which we presented to them.

These books showed the amazing creative work that was transformed through their inner strength. This also showed us that through story telling, reading books aloud, listening to the kids voices - that deep inside they too had hopes of a bright future. They also expressed and shared what they want to be one day - professions that included doctors, art teachers, science teachers, engineers, etc.  The experience we had exemplified why I believe that with non-traditional education in cases such as this, it is the way to teach and incorporate real life skills that these kids need in order to survive, heal, and be willing to learn anything they desire.

I heard the kids said over and over again, “this is the first time that we have something like this offered to us, it is such a great experience and taught us the true meaning of ambition.” This non-traditional learning offered a safe, happy and creative environment--(painting, creative writing, singing, poetry, reading books - resulted in sharing their stories and expressing themselves), they were very thankful and grateful for what we had done.  The kids had learned life-skills, got encouragement to keep up with what they had learned, and to keep on seeking knowledge and positive things - without giving up under any circumstances.

In the the beginning the children were drawing sad pictures of the freedom flag of Syria, crying eyes comprised of blood tears, and other pictures of the war-- but after three days their work was much different, it reflected their true voices and and their dreams of what they wanted this world to be.  Their new stories were now filled with hope and ambitions - they now drew hearts, flowers, gardens, and were thinking of how they were going to rebuild the new Syria.

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The children were amazing in that they showed up every day showing eagerness and willingness to learn with their love for art and to self improve themselves. They developed life social skills by building and making everyday learning from different exercises. They learned how to build a city from cardboard which taught them recycling and learned to improvise and make art from whatever they have. They also developed careful use of materials and protecting what they have so that they don’t lose what they gained from this short week – since the word “to lose” to them is very significant and traumatic—they cared for the materials and made sure that they are all in their designated folders and that all of what they drew and painted in that folder and is well protected.

The more the days went on with the various projects, the children developed a powerful self- expressiveness and expanded their ability for critical thinking and problem solving. Their concentration and their ability to sit through circle times was incredible because it was interactive and allowed them to speak and share with others what they liked. A few of the students came everyday to share a poem that they wrote on their own the night before. The final project which they did was to write and illustrate their story using all the accumulated sequential knowledge of drawing, painting, reading, writing, and listening to a story.

We really cannot properly express the amazing experience we had with the Syrian children, and how successful the project went.  The workshop project left milestones with them, and the children kept asking when we will have another workshop like this - we are so happy to have been able to plant the seed of hope and ambition for these beautiful children.

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