Jordan + 1 more

Creating works of art helps refugee children repair their lives

When asked to describe his future, a refugee child from Iraq draws a picture of himself as a doctor. Another child uses colorful paints to depict happy memories of his former life in Iraq. Both children are among the 200,000 displaced Iraqis who now live in Jordan, a country that has become a safe haven for those fleeing oppression and war in neighboring Palestine, Syria, and Iraq.

Alexandra Dawley, a former volunteer with the Collateral Repair Project in Jordan, emphasizes how something as simple as an art project can help young refugees adjust to their new lives in a foreign country. With the support of Rotary clubs across Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, and the help of teenage refugee volunteers in Jordan, Dawley implemented a children's' art program to give refugee children a creative outlet for their dreams and ambitions.

Dawley cites as her inspiration the 10 life skills deemed essential by UNICEF and WHO for those coping with forced displacement. Those skills include problem solving, creative thinking, effective communication, empathy, and the ability to cope with emotions and stress.

"I am not a certified art therapist," she says, "but I recognized art as a way to make healing and life-skills development accessible and fun for kids."

Dawley, a Rotary global grant scholar from Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, recently received a master's degree in social development from the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. Her three months of volunteer work in Amman, Jordan, in 2014 counted toward her graduate research.

Dawley says the art program not only helped kids be kids but it also enabled the teenagers who helped her implement the classes, giving them the chance to develop and practice their leadership skills. "These teenagers genuinely care about their community, and developed important mentorship roles with children who need it," she says.

The teens also helped brighten up the community center in Jordan where the Collateral Repair Project hosts community-building activities and educational programs for refugees. As part of the art program, Dawley organized a mural project for the teens, who painted a wall at the center in vibrant colors.

"Due to the generous Rotarian donations, I was able to leave a wealth of supplies for the teens to use as they continue running the art program," she says. "The mural on the side of the center was a source of stress relief and a source of pride for the teens who designed it and the children who volunteered with us as we painted it."

Founded in 2006, the Collateral Repair Project is a nonprofit organization that helps refugees create a sense of community in Jordan. It runs an emergency assistance program to ensure that basic nutrition and housing needs are met, and through the community center, offers a variety of programs and learning opportunities including computer courses, English classes, and a women's craft co-op.

"The Collateral Repair Project is working hard to overcome sectarian tensions, building community ... and promoting life skills that can help children and youth cope with the challenges they face," Dawley says.

Dawley traces her interest in helping refugees to her time as a Rotary Youth Exchange student in Budapest, Hungary. While there, she volunteered at a local orphanage, using art and drama to connect with children. She also helped to lead an English class for American Corner, a nonprofit organization that promotes the development of English-language skills. "The [Youth Exchange] program sparked my interest in global issues and shifted my life trajectory," she says.

Barbara Cameron, scholarship chair for District 5020, which includes part of British Columbia, served as Dawley's mentor throughout her scholarship application process and volunteer work in Jordan. A member of the Rotary Club of Saanich, Cameron also helped Dawley organize presentations to Rotary clubs throughout Vancouver Island about her work with refugees. In the process, Dawley raised more than $2,000 for her art program.

Having completed her studies in England, Dawley is back in Canada, planning to work with refugees and recent immigrants while continuing to raise awareness and support for the Collateral Repair Project. She hopes someday to return to the Middle East and pursue a doctorate in forced migration studies. And ultimately, she wants to help formulate policies to support holistic development programs that expand the capabilities of refugees, rather than leave them reliant on government aid.

"Much of our world is in conflict, many of our international communities are displaced, and people need policy that allows them to voice their needs and reach their potential," Dawley says. "This is what drives me and this is what I'll work toward."

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By Daniela Garcia
Rotary News