Painting a New Picture of Refugee Art Therapy

Art transcends language barriers and can act as a powerful storytelling medium when words fail. Maria Khalid Nissan was an art student pursuing her master’s degree in Florence, Italy, when she came face-to-face with the realities of the current refugee crisis in Europe.

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The descendant of refugees from Iraq, Maria felt compelled to help those facing a similar situation to that of her relatives. “Growing up, I heard the horrible stories and struggles my parents had to go through to make it as citizens in America, and continue to encounter to this day,” she says. Armed with degrees in art education, she made the journey from Athens, Georgia to Athens, Greece to put her vision for an art therapy project for refugees into motion.

In January of 2018, The Unmentionables opened their Resource Center in Athens, a space for refugees to take part in sexual and reproductive health classes and empowerment activities. Impressed by the impact that the organization already had on the local community, Maria felt that this was a place where her art therapy program could have a real impact. In June, The Unmentionables Resource Center began hosting regular art therapy sessions.

However, working within the context of the refugee crisis created some unexpected challenges that Maria did not anticipate. Her classes were full of participants ranging from ages three to 35 and speaking an array of different languages, most of which she does not speak herself. Many would also attend sessions without any consistency, making it difficult for her to observe student growth over time.

Despite these initial frustrations, Maria’s desire to impact the lives of these people through art motivated her to redesign her approach ensuring that they get the most out of their time together. She has been moved by the powerful results she’s seen since, “I got them to understand this wasn’t just about drawing, it was a bonding experience and a place that allowed them to have a voice. I gave them a way to use their voice in a country they couldn’t communicate in.”

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Art is only half the equation, though. In her sessions, Maria aims to remind everyone that they are cared for, make them feel like part of a family, and create a larger sense of community. “Sometimes when I look up after helping a student, I see a community of artists collaborating. They are laughing and joking with one another.” Through her classes, Maria aspires to make those she’s working with feel valued, and to provide them with a safe environment and the necessary tools to tell their stories. “I quickly picked up on one common factor they all felt; a loss of identity and purpose. Once I understood that, the rest fit into place,” she said.

Refugee or not, we are all people at the end of the day. Deep down, we all crave the same basic things, like attention, appreciation, respect, and the ability to express ourselves. Of her approach, Maria says, “I never really know if I am making a difference in their lives. But if I am able to give them a moment where they can be free from the distress of their trauma and have a normal life, even for an hour, then we are doing our part.”

The results of this program are multifold. Not only do these sessions give people the opportunity to therapeutically express themselves through art, but they also act as a productive way to entertain and help children at the Resource Center while their parents attend the The Unmentionables’ innovative sexual and reproductive health education classes.

Daniel Berberi