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Syria: stories of devastation and hope

The image of Barbie dolls ‘dismembered’ by Syrian children is a reminder that the trauma of war will last long after the fighting stops.

Georgina Paget
16 July 2014
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Artwork by George Butler. All rights reserved

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On World Refugee Day, on stands in front of the Turners and other great British Masters, the V&A exhibited a series of illustrations the artist George Butler had produced during a visit to Lebanon earlier this year, when he spent time in various refugee camps in the Bekaa Valley in northern Lebanon. Butler drew in situ, taking about an hour for each piece to illustrate what he saw in pen, ink and watercolour.

The works were varied, with some beautiful portraits of individuals he met, scenes from the clinics, schools and settlements supported by Doctors of The World that he visited, and from the camps, and alongside them some illustrations from previous visits Butler had made to Syria in 2012.

Then he’d spent time with the FSA, amongst internally displaced refugees, and at field hospitals, recording the devastation of the war-torn country. Butler felt moved both to document what he saw, and also to do something about it back in London. Together with a small group of other volunteers he runs the Syrian Supper Club, where hosts cook Syrian dishes in their homes and invite guests who all make a donation to organisations providing aid to Syrian refugees. They have raised over £100,000 this year so far. He has also recently set up a small charity with similar aims.

The scenes Butler depicted of the refugee settlements, and of the towns in Syria destroyed by the conflict, are distinguished by their thin lines and splashes of colour on an otherwise white, blank background. This apparent intentional incompleteness, or deliberate highlighting effect, acts as a sort of reminder to the viewer that although the artist has indeed recorded and borne witness to the experience of Syrians caught in the horrors of the conflict, the images are, like all reportage from the conflict, glimpses, snapshots in ink; one part of a much larger picture.

It is an important and informative part, nonetheless. It may be a crisis that is in many ways ‘too large for the human brain to comprehend’, a he says, but Butler’s illustrations provide a point of connection for the viewer, a way in, to begin to comprehend something of the tragedy.

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Artwork by George Butler. All rights reserved.

The images that I found particularly affecting were a series of illustrations of the possessions that some of the refugees had brought with them to Lebanon from Syria: they are not what you might expect. Butler himself confessed that it has taken him several days to work out how best to describe the stories of the refugees he met, until he decided to ask families to let him draw the belonging they’d brought from Syria, and when he’d asked to see what they had brought with them he had expected to be shown treasured, sentimental items.

The reality was much less sentimental but no less poignant for the viewer. A pair of scissors; a remote control for a TV left behind in Syria; a barbie doll. They were ‘whatever they grabbed when the lights went off’, Butler told the assembled audience, and often things for the kids. A description in the exhibition catalogue gave an insight into the owner of the barbie doll, a small girl, who watched Butler as he drew.

Looking over his shoulder after a few minutes, before the drawing was complete, she noticed that her Barbie had only one leg. Though she could see the fully-limbed doll right in front of her, she immediately asked ‘has she lost her leg in the war?”. The assumption behind the question, and the matter-of factness of it, is heartbreaking: Lost limbs had become a fact of life for that young girl, a normal experience. This is true of many in her situation.

The image of the Barbie had a personal resonance for me, as well. It reminded me of the dismembered barbies lying on the floor of a creche in Amman, Jordan, which our team on the Syria Trojan Women Project had organised and helped to run for the kids of the women involved in the pilot drama therapy project we ran last autumn, whilst their mums were in rehearsals. On an early research trip, one of my colleagues had noticed that the refugee children she met had absolutely no toys. There's something heart-breaking about children with no toys, she thought, especially since so many of her friends’ kids have more toys than they know what to do with.

Back in London, we collected toys from parents and indeed children who were happy to donate. Some wrote cards, and one little boy drew a picture, to be included with his toys: ‘We are thinking about you! XOXO Jeremy’, he tells the recipient. The first few days of the creche were mayhem. Not in a boisterous, exuberant way, but actual chaos. Children were pulling each others’ hair, kicking, biting, screaming.

We had partnered with Syria Bright Future, an organisation established in Amman by mental health professionals who are refugees from the Syrian conflict themselves, staffed by professionals and volunteers, which provides psychological support for refugees who are often not otherwise able to afford professional help. They worked with the kids using a variety of techniques, from play therapy, singing and dancing, to PTSD recovery techniques pioneered in post conflict contexts by organisations such as ‘Children and War’. The sessions were the highlights of the kids morning, and the effects were startling.

As one of the psychologists explained to us, these children were mostly highly traumatised, either as a result of their own experiences or the experiences of their families. Not only that, but before their mums got involved in the project, the younger ones in particular had never socialised with children outside their immediate family unit, since the urban refugees of Amman are often scattered and isolated, with none of the normal community structures and friends and family support they would have at home in Syria.

The kids probably hadn't meant to dismember the barbie specifically, and weren’t really intending to cause harm – they just didn’t know how to share yet. And they were often anxious when they were away from their mums, simply because they'd never been away from them before, or only in a traumatic context. As the weeks went on and the Bright Future team continued to work with the kids and also with their mothers, we saw a remarkable change in the children.

Sure, sharing was still as tricky as it always is when you’re five years old and you really want to play with the red truck-but the barbies began to fare a bit better, as the children gained confidence, trust, and began to develop their social and imaginative skills. The experience of that creche has prompted us to begin plans for a musical project for refugee children in Amman, where this kind of therapeutic experience can be replicated for a new, larger group of children.

Speaking at the exhibition, a Lebanese psychologist called Noelle who works with Doctors of the World in one of their clinics in a refugee settlement in the Bekaa valley, recounted a story of a young boy she’d treated, Ahmad. His mother had brought him to the clinic because he had been behaving very aggressively to other children, and causing problems. Also, he kept on burning the gas stove in their tent, which was incredibly dangerous.

Ahmad’s trauma stemmed from having witnessed his father being beheaded right in front of him by an armed gang back in Syria. Ahmad, only four years old, could not begin to process this horrific, scarring experience and terrible loss -and his behaviour reflected that. Noelle discovered that his father had always made little Ahmad a pot of hot chocolate when he got in from work. She quickly realised that Ahmad was burning the gas on the stove because he was attempting to repeat the ritual he had seen his father carry out daily.

It was his childish way of feeling close to the father he had lost so horrifically. Noelle was able to help Ahmad work through his trauma and begin to process what had happened, and eventually to stop repeating this ritualistic routine. Timely and effective psychological care saved a family from having their tent set on fire, and saved a young boy from a life blighted by the long term effects of irreparable psychological damage.

Chris Van Tullekan, one of the Van Tullekan twins of ‘Medicine Men Go Wild’ fame who has worked closely with Doctors of the World himself, was acting as interviewer / compere for the evening. Pondering Noelle’s story, he explained that in his view, in a well-run camp psychological first aid, like that which Noelle provides, can be just as important as basic medical care - sometimes even more so.

Thinking of the kids we worked with, and the little girl whose possessions – including her intact Barbie –Butler illustrated so poignantly, Van Tulleken’s statement rings true. The young barbie owner may be in good physical health, and have escaped Syria unharmed, but the psychological harm caused by the conflict leaves her with a wound, as it has done and continues to do to so many like her, which if left untreated could fester in an entire generation long after the conflict ends.

The exhibition is titled ‘Stories of Devastation and Hope’. Hope that the refugees depicted will return to their former homes, that their devastated country and uprooted lives, so powerfully illustrated, will be rebuilt. And for now, the hope that these organisations can address the needs of those who are living through the great humanitarian disaster of our time.

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