Sedra Nikzad, 10 years old, draws in the Mosaik Support Center. Her drawing is of her tent in Moria refugee camp where she lived for months. (Photo: Maro Kouri, Dimitra Papageorgiou)

For Refugee Children, Art Is Therapy

At camps in Greece, kids draw and paint their way through their trauma.
Dec 25, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Marc Herman is the author of The Wizard and the Volcano, The Shores of Tripoli, and Searching for El Dorado and a cofounder of Deca, a longform journalists' co-op. He lives in Barcelona.

Last May, at Kara Tepe refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, seven school-age children gathered at a table to play with crayons. After hands grabbed for the preferred colors—yellow and blue-green were in demand for drawing the sun and the sea—most of the kids spent the next hour depicting the usual scenes of flowers and clouds, dogs and cats, and stick-figure portraits of their families. One girl’s work, however, caught the eye of a volunteer overseeing the group.

“Is that a boat?” asked the group’s monitor, a student from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who had come to Greece to volunteer at the camp and was on childcare duty that day.

A nine-year-old girl with sandy hair answered in Kurdish, which the American volunteer didn’t understand. She didn’t have to. The girl’s picture showed a house drawn in frantic strokes, a mountain with clouds above it, and the boat, scribbled in angry, asymmetric lines. Though a rainbow’s worth of colors were scattered around the table, the girl had drawn the whole picture in just one color: dark red.

The volunteer, who said she had no training in child psychology, explained she had been told to pay attention to the content of the children’s artwork and would mention the girl’s picture to her superior, who would decide whether to bring it up with the camp’s medical team, which included a psychologist.

The afternoon coloring session at Kara Tepe was part of several formal and informal art therapy programs under way at refugee camps on Lesbos, a second facility called Pikpa, and Lesbos’ largest and most notorious refugee facility, Moria. The art programs are designed to help hundreds of children who have been stranded for months on Lesbos—many of whom, say camp staff, still suffer from trauma experienced on their journeys but have only limited access to formal psychological services in the badly overcrowded camps.

More recently, larger organizations have become involved in art therapy programs at the camps. Planned as short-term shelter, Greece’s refugee camps have become long-term housing, often prisonlike, after last spring’s European Union–Turkey deal stranded nearly 60,000 asylum seekers in Greece. The result has been a need for longer-term services. In November, Mercy Corps, an international humanitarian aid organization, announced it was collaborating with local organizations to support art therapy programs.

Most of the efforts are ad hoc but effective. At Pikpa, a leafy collection of tents, playground equipment, and small buildings that once housed a summer camp, the use of art therapy has proved central to the organization’s success. A recent winner of the United Nations’ Nansen award, which recognizes extraordinary efforts to help people in flight, Pikpa’s leadership has made artwork by the residents a key facet of the facility, which they call a “village” rather than a refugee camp. Drawings are visible on the asphalt sidewalks that cross one side of Pikpa. In a multipurpose area, children who attend makeshift math and language classes are also encouraged to draw and paint pictures and hang them from the poles that hold up the roof. In May, many of the pictures depicted the sea crossing, with high waves towering over children in small boats.

FULL COVERAGE: The Global Refugee Crisis

Is drawing really therapy or just recess? With resources in the overcrowded camps few, it’s rare to see formal art therapy programs, which use creative exercises as a diagnostic or treatment tool, in sessions overseen by trained psychologists. More common are scenes like the coloring session at Kara Tepe, where children and sometimes adults are able to engage in painting, singing, or make craftmaking. The activity’s organizers simply keep in mind that if something looks unusual, they ought to say something. The programs, like many aspects of life in the camps, often depend on volunteers.

Imelda Graham organizes the after school art activities program for the refugee children who have found shelter with their parents in PIKPA Open Solidarity Refugee camp. (Photo: Maro Kouri)

Even if the therapeutic value can be a byproduct, the use of art for more than diversion isn’t rare in the camps, said staffers.

“I teach math and Arabic, but I will also see the kids doing other things—drawing and playing,” said Yara Shlewet, a volunteer at Pikpa. “There have been times when I noticed things in a picture.” Though for some kids the usual school activities operate mostly to alleviate boredom, others discover a way to slowly grapple with memories of the deadly sea crossing and the violence that forced them to flee their homes.

Several organizations have created temporary art programs in the camps that function, sometimes purposely and sometimes not, as therapy. In June, a British NGO called Lon-Art ran a ceramics workshop at Kara Tepe for children and adults. Among the students was the girl who had colored the monochrome picture of a broken boat, an empty house, and a dark mountain a month before. She produced a small, not-quite-round bowl. It was bright yellow and green.