I recently volunteered with charity Just Shelter and despite being an experienced art educator and a passionate advocate of the importance of art and creativity, I had some misgivings before we left. I found myself wondering whether art activities would be received well by the refugees, given the realities of life there.
My role was to facilitate art activities with children and families who were staying at a temporary shelter in Grande-Synthe, Calais. I went loaded with materials and activities in mind but with no expectations about how the day would go.
We arrived at the sports hall, which is serving as a shelter, around midday and while the other volunteers were distributing some of the supplies, I began setting up the art activities. I took in the setup; several families including pregnant women, in cornered off sections of the hall, simple bedding, a few possessions laid out and no privacy to speak of.
The main body of Just Shelter volunteers left to distribute aid in the woods, leaving myself and one other volunteer to run the art activities at the shelter. A teenage boy immediately stood out as a figure who was able to help settle the children, and as he also spoke great English I commandeered him to help setup and organise the activities. Rakir was so confident and mature, and the younger children responded well to him, I was impressed that he seemed so calm and collected in what was undoubtedly a stressful circumstance.
We setup two trestle tables in the centre of the hall and started with simple activities such as drawing and painting on large sheets of paper. The mood calmed, and slowly but surely the children and two or three of the mothers gathered around and began drawing and painting. I recognised that universal sight of individuals engrossed in creativity and felt gratitude that I was able to spend this time with the mums and their children. Every now and then a scuffle would erupt due to a child using another’s pencil, or a child would become vocal and anxious over not having a paint brush or some such tool instantly to hand. I noted how, by comparison to the classroom teaching I do, these children were easily riled and understandably possessive over materials, defending their equipment fiercely.
Throughout the day we kept the art activities flowing and we got to know the children and their personalities. None of the younger, primary aged children were timid or shy as I thought they would be, they were in fact steadfast and determined in what they wanted to do and how they wanted their art to look. Without shared language we manged to navigate our way through painting, charcoal self-portraits and, the clear favourite with the children – printing. Each time we finished an activity I would invite the children to pin their work up on the walls of the sports hall. I noted that some of the children would spend calm focused time on their art, but they would finish by ripping it up, destined for the bin. While this behaviour is not exclusive to refugee children, it is something I have seen time and time again in frustrated children.
One girl, Sharia, did build quite a collection of her artwork though, she taped up prints and drawings above her family’s area. This girl’s father, a man with what can only be described as a regal face, thanked me profusely and eventually he reached into one of the boxes surrounding his temporary home, and gave me one of his bananas by way of gratitude for making art with his daughter.
All of the families consisted of a mum, dad and one or two children, but one of the mums I spoke with was a single mum with one, lively and emotional daughter. She communicated to me that she had escaped from her abusive husband, and that in her country she could not fulfil her dream of being an artist and actress. I felt a surge of guilt because even before I get to reflecting on this lady’s present living situation, the oppressive past she left behind and the uncertainty of her and her daughters’ future; The fact that I live a life where I am free to have dreams and passions is something that I take for granted.
My teenaged art teaching assistant, Rakir, was magnificent, he translated when we needed it and he helped organise the day. We learnt through him that because of the transient nature of the shelter, it is hard to form friendships and frequently sad to say goodbye to people. He spoke about the logistics of living in this limbo, he talked about how he loved sports and was keen to start his life. It was apparent he missed football as he and another boy tried to play keepie-uppie inside the sports hall, closely missing the art table and much to the loud uproar of the small artists sat at it.
It is hard to imagine what it is like spending day after day in that sports hall, trying to keep busy, thoughts no doubt whirring in your head, eating, sleeping and waiting. Apparently though, the sports hall shelter will be closing soon, and refuge in the woods, as is the case for many refugees, sounds even less humane.
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