Refugee children traumatised by IS get art therapy help

Iraqi refugee children in Jordan are being helped to process their trauma and heartache with art therapy classes, supported by Open Doors.

What struck Maran, who runs the art classes, is that the first paintings the children draw always seem to include large back figures. “The dark figures represent IS and other evils the children had to endure,” said Maran. “After a while, we see the children’s paintings becoming more clear, bright and detailed, and the dark figures become smaller or disappear. This is a sign the children are processing their trauma.”

On the wall of the art room is a painting of a tree and a large pink heart that is special to Maran. “This girl was so hurt that she would hardly communicate at all. She just drew a tree and a large heart. She said, ‘I just miss my home.’ The tree represents her home; the heart is her pain. It broke my heart when I saw it – the truth in its simplicity.”

“When these kids visit the art class for the first time we ask them, ‘what is the thing you miss most from Iraq now that you live here?’ Almost all of them draw their church,” said Maran. “They used to go to church on a regular basis in Iraq, and they loved it. It’s the place where they socialized. Many of these kids saw IS take down the crosses from their churches and it influenced them a lot.”


The next step in the programme is enabling the children to talk to their parents about their feelings. “Because the mum is traumatised, the kids are also traumatised,” Maran said. “There are a lot of mood swings going on in these families. The mother gets mad at the kids, the kids get mad at the mother, and they can’t communicate well about it. In some cases, the mothers feel so powerless that they start beating their children.”

A simple tool the programme uses to help the parents and children understand each other’s feelings better is a Mood Clock that the children make. “Every day they can set it to their mood. Either they are happy, okay, sad or mad.

“Even some mothers are using it now to show to their children, ‘Today mummy is sad. I don’t know why, but please give me some space,’” said Maran.


At the end of the programme the children make Goals Cloud. “When we’ve been through processing and talking about the trauma, we move on to the goals. We ask the kids to set goals for themselves they can work on. We replace the sadness and anger with good things. The kids put this by their bed so they can use it every day. It does not cost a lot, but it sure helps a lot.”

One Goal Cloud which hangs on the wall of the art therapy room has five goals written neatly on it. It says, I want to pray more. I want to draw more. I want to help my parents. I want to listen to what’s been said to me. I want to start reading a book.

Maran is the founder of Al Hadaf, a Jordanian organization reaching out to the most vulnerable. Open Doors has been supporting Al Hadaf’s refugee programme, aiming at restoring dignity for Christian refugees, from Iraq since 2015.

Open Doors has launched Hope for the Middle East, a seven year campaign uniting the global church to ensure every person in the Middle East, no matter what their faith, has a home, a future and a voice. As part of this, Open Doors is asking people to sign the Hope for the Middle East petition, which will be presented to the UN on 11 December 2017. The petition currently has over 640,000 signatures from 142 countries.

Iraq is number 7 on the 2017 Open Doors World Watch List. Iraq was once home to one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East; today, the church in Iraq is in danger of disappearing completely. The IS militants have forced thousands of Christians to flee their homes. Even in areas of Iraq that aren’t controlled by IS, Sharia is the basis of the law and Muslims are forbidden from leaving Islam.

Jordan is number 27 on the 2017 Open Doors World Watch List. Jordan has long been one of the Middle East’s more liberal countries for religious freedom, but the tide is turning for Christians. Expat Christians and historical Christian communities are relatively free – as long as they do not evangelise Muslims. But believers from Muslim backgrounds face serious oppression from local authorities, non-Christian religious leaders, even their own families. The large number of Muslim refugees from Syria and Iraq, combined with the rise of radical Islam, is also putting increasing pressure on Christians. It is estimated that there are at least 15,000 Iraqi Christian refugees living in Jordan.

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