Canadian arts organizations offer hope, healing for Syrian refugees

With Syrian refugees newly arrived to Canada, arts organizations are offering free tickets, workshops and activities to help them adapt. Experts say the arts can be especially useful for people who don't yet speak English, allowing them to express their emotions in other ways.

From workshops to nights at the ballet, arts groups bring beauty to those starting a new life

A new colouring book called Welcome to Toronto is just one of the arts and cultural initiatives being extended to Syrian refugees now making Canada their home. 1:21

Their days are packed with urgent and necessary things to do: forms to fill out, homes to find, a new language to learn. But Syrian refugees in Canada are also getting a cultural education about their new country through the universal language of the arts.

At the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Syrian children newly arrived to Canada have been given colouring books created just for them, entitled "Welcome to Toronto."

To create the book, Rafi Ghanaghounian rallied 30 of his fellow artists to each contribute a sketch of their favourite thing about Toronto. Next to the drawings, the artists wrote a few words about their choice, which were then translated into Arabic.

"The reason why the book was put out was to get the children involved," Ghanaghounian said in an interview with CBC News. "It's a fun way to discover the city of Toronto but also to maybe learn a little bit of English at the same time."

Mario Calla, the executive director of COSTI Immigrant Services, agrees getting refugees out in the community is important.

Syrian refugees pose with the executive director of the National Ballet of Canada, Barry Hughson, and artistic director, Karen Kain, before seeing a performance of Romeo and Juliet in Toronto on March 15, 2016. (Deana Sumanac-Johnson, CBC News)

Most days, his organization is helping refugees settle in and learn the language. But last week they took 72 people, mostly children, on a special field trip to the National Ballet of Canada's performance of Romeo and Juliet. (The National Ballet supplied the tickets.)

"They can't just be sitting in a hotel," said Calla. "It's an opportunity from them to be exposed to Canadian culture."

And an opportunity for kids to be kids. Most of the attendees of the ballet excursion were young girls, like the 10-year-old Malaz Mosto. Through a translator, she told CBC news she "wants to be a kindergarten teacher when she grows up. But while she's little, she'd love to be a ballet dancer."

Healing the wounds of war

But more than educating and welcoming these new Canadians, participation in the arts can help people express their thoughts and feelings — something crucially important to the emotional well-being of people who have been through the horrors of war. 

Dr. Sophie Yohani, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Alberta, specializes in the mental health of refugees and immigrants.

Art can be a form of speaking the unspeakable.- Dr. Sophie Yohani , University of Alberta psychologist

"Art can be a form of speaking the unspeakable," said Yohani, adding that art is especially important in situations where people have not yet mastered the language of their new home.

"With a lot of understanding about how people heal, and how children in particular heal from difficult experiences, art can be definitely a very useful medium for children to express their experiences, to express their feelings, to express their thoughts."

'No home'

Staff at Toronto's Turtle House Art Play Centre and College Montrose Children's Place have seen the cathartic power of the arts first-hand. With financial help from Immigration Canada, the organizations recently held a three-day workshop in which young Syrian-Canadians — some in the country for less than a week — made drawings and created sculptures from clay and Play-Doh.

Shown to their parents on the third day of the workshop, some drawings depict hopeful imagery: the green trees of their new home in Canada, hearts and flowers. But others speak of grim tales of the war in their native land and difficulties they've encountered while trying to escape.

"Some of them are drawing homes, and when I'm saying 'Home?', you can see these emotions build up. And sometimes tears will build up in their eyes," said Corina John, the community programs manager of College Montrose Children's Place. "They're looking and saying 'No home!' and they'll smash their home."

Tamam McCallum, the executive director of Turtle House, is a veteran of working with children who have been traumatized by war or a refugee experience. She says she encourages children not to filter their feelings.

"You can also express things that are more negative and that's okay, too. It can open up a conversation about what's going on in their lives."


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