Workshop 1, ‘Alignment’

posted by Grazia Imperiale 

On February 7 2023, SHARED hosted its first workshop on ‘Alignment’. The workshop focused on international arts in health initiatives that build on existing community capabilities. We heard from colleagues from   

  • Nawa Culture and Arts Association, a non-profit organisation founded in 2014 by a group of educated, enthusiastic and dedicated youth in the Gaza Strip (Palestine) to empower their local community through culture, arts and non-formal education.   
  • Mishwar, a community-run charity established in 2016 in northern Lebanon, near the Syrian border working with refugee children and youth through a wide range of arts-based activities, represented by founder and director Tony Collins.  
  • The University of Glasgow UNESCO Chair in Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts (UNESCO RILA),which promotes creative and artistic approaches to refugee integration, represented by artist in residence Tawona Sithole. 

In the Gaza Strip, NAWA has been active in crisis and emergency situations since 2014. The dreadful living conditions of the Strip, the constant military attacks – the last one in August 2022 - and the siege, affect people’s health and wellbeing. A survey conducted by the World Bank found that in Gaza, 70% of respondents had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The UN reports that one third of Gaza’s population needs psychosocial support. NAWA works with children, youth, and parents and guardians to support and improve wellbeing and mental health through the provision of arts-based activities, cultural activities and resources, and non-formal education. During the SHARED workshop, the arts were shown to have improved children’s ability to focus and to express themselves. For example, during a project in 2015 (just one year after the 2014 military attacks), NAWA members found that children had lost the ability to focus on simple tasks. Through the use of drawing, clay, watercolours and art therapy, they found that the children’s concentration improved within just a few art-focused learning sessions. Inspired by the Steinerian approach, NAWA’s strategy is based on a holistic theory of child development focusing on aesthetic and artistic elements to promote and nurture the wellbeing of individuals.   

In northern Lebanon, Mishwar has been working with Syrian refugees living in informal tent settlements since 2016. Over the years, Mishwar’s creative projects and grassroots approach have engaged and connected diverse communities including Syrian and Palestinian refugees and Lebanese people in Akkar, Lebanon’s poorest region. Mishwar worked with music, photography, mandalas, mindfulness, painting, and sport to promote children’s wellbeing. Through a variety of projects, the aim was to help communities reconnect with each other, and, undoubtedly, the children’s wellbeing and mental health was a priority. However, with the small charity relying entirely on donations from individuals, Tony Collins emphasised that using art was also a way to raise funds for the community, and, most importantly, to enable the children to regain and strengthen their agency:   

We've worked with children over a period of months to help them develop and express themselves through the medium of mandala. We also worked with photographers over a period of months to help the children express themselves through photography. So with each of these artistic projects, we were also very keen that they were not just artistic projects for their own sake. So with the music, the Mandalas, and the photo exhibition, the possibility is there to actually raise money. But at the same time, we're dealing with extreme circumstances. We always wanted our artwork to open the possibility of raising support for these communities, to really prove to people that art is not only or not just healthy, in a very obvious sense, but it can bring benefits for communities. Children in the camps that we work with are constantly learning that the only way to survive is when the UN or any given NGO comes up with food and clothes, and that's how life works. It's terrible, it's absolutely poisonous for the development of children to think that that's how the world works. And, of course, our art is the opposite to that. Art is like the enabling force. It's makes all possible. I think, in a very small way, we're planting a seed in minds that ‘Oh, no, I'm not the receiver of help all the time. I'm someone that can give, I can create.’  So it's totally inverting the whole, you know, crisis environment.  

Thanks to the donations, Mishwar has been able to develop more projects, and provide assistance to those most in need in the communities and camps where they operate. However, in recent years, the severe economic crisis in Lebanon has left the majority of people in Lebanon ‘struggling to put food on the table as inflation exceeded 200%’ . The crisis has continued to worsen, and as a result, the living conditions of refugees have steadily deteriorated.     

Tawona Sithole, artist in residence at UNESCO RILA, spoke about the body as a site of trauma, but also as a place to celebrate and rejoice. As violence is done to the body, Tawona Sithole emphasised the importance of 'allowing the body to become expressive again’. One way to do this is to use the arts to unleash expressiveness and creativity when our language fails.  

Paul Crawford, Professor of Health Humanities, and member of the advisory board of SHARED,  encouraged and inspired the speakers and audience to take pride in all the projects they are involved in because, as he pointed out, the arts are finally being recognised for their role in health and in sustaining a sense of wellness and promoting individuals’ strengths. He highlighted that there is now much evidence of the relevance of the arts to trauma (see, for example, the productive field of art therapy, or the use of mindfulness to improve patients’ lives and self-compassion) and how they can be used and leveraged in a variety of contexts. So, it is time to act and share the knowledge gained from interventions and arts-based projects. And it may also be time to recognise that what we call 'evidence' can be multifaceted.