Why ‘humanitarian art therapy’ works

Fathima Mohiuddin
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This was my second and longer trip to Amman, Jordan. When I first got in and looked at my GPS, I zoomed out to acknowledge how much devastation and chaos surrounds Jordan on all borders. The aftermath of attacks that leave people fighting to find some semblance of a normal life is tragic. It’s not just about how many were lost. What the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Reconstructive Surgery Programme (RSP) in Amman really highlights are the people who spend months to years recovering from devastation. Victims of wars erupting in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Palestine come to the hospital to receive month-long and sometimes year-long rehabilitation, where the MSF staff’s aim is to help patients regain the functionality and mobility that they lost due to the raging wars surrounding them. Amputees and burn victims. Surgeries and grafts and prosthetics. Learning to walk again, talk again. Never mind the psychological impact of intense trauma. The more wars that are fought simultaneously, the less the value of the individual and their quality of life seems to matter. And it should matter. This is man-made devastation and these are innocent people.

On my first day in the hospital we did a little pow wow with the kids. When working with children I like the ideas to come from them. It’s their space and to see your ideas valued and portrayed around you can have a real positive impact on morale. The boys really wanted a lion. And when I asked them why, they said because it is brave and strong. A very simple image that told a lot about their situations. The girls wanted a butterfly, birds. Symbols of freedom, beauty and transformation. And this is what we painted.


PHOTO GALLERY: Humanitarian art therapy

In May this year, the children at the MSF Reconstructive Surgery Hospital in Amman, Jordan. (Faris Al-Jawad/MSF)

Over 4 days, children, and many adults, got involved in what really felt like a community effort to brighten up their hallway, their days, and their outlooks on life hopefully. Children played, I taught them the right way to hold a brush and apply layers. It was pleasing to see that many of the kids had a positive attitude despite their circumstances. We made a mess and it was okay because they laughed and they imagined and got hooked to the feeling of being free and creative in the moment and just being kids for a while. There was an Iraqi actor who had just got his new prosthetic leg whose singing was sad and powerful and vibrated through the entire hallway. Vibrations of hope.

The children from the RSP, who come from war-torn countries often have had their lives changed by their injuries and undergo intense surgery to their bodies plus extensive physiotherapy. Some have been away from their homes for over a year, so it felt really good to see them involved in working together and being happy to be creative. They encouraged each other. They helped each other when they couldn’t reach. And when we were finished we rejoiced together.

They asked me about my life and kept coming back for more. They wanted to paint the whole hospital! They were sad but strong. Brave. Hopeful. And what really shone through was that in these tough situations, the human spirit perseveres. And I’d like to think that art helps with that perseverance.

On the last day I watched a group of patients get on a bus as they started their journey back to Iraq. I wondered, if I was in the same situation if I would do the same and realized they don’t really have a choice or anywhere else to go. And that was probably the most sinking feeling I’d had all week. I wondered where they might end up and imagined their challenges ahead and felt grateful for my life and grateful for the opportunity to share what little I may have to give with them, and hoped it had helped in some way.

We can’t all be doctors and heal bodies. No doubt the work of these who dedicate their lives to working at these NGO’s is incredible. But I believe that art, which is really all I have to give, can help. We, as artists know how art affects the spirit and soul. It’s why we care so much about what we do. And I think you’d be surprised at how sharing that can help somebody else.

I believe that art connects us with our own and each other’s humanity to keep pushing forward and be hopeful. It reminds us to feel, to identify our fears and dreams, and to channel and accept those feelings however dark they may be.

Fathima Mohiuddin is an award-winning Dubai-based studio and street artist. She has an BA in fine art and an MA in sociology.

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