Nfld. & Labrador

St. John's teacher uses art therapy to help refugees in Iraq

As the province prepares to welcome its share of the 25,000 Syrian refugees coming to Canada, one St. John's woman is working to help those displaced in Iraq.

Maria Mulcahy says people in N.L. take safety and security for granted

Maria Mulcahy, 28, of St. John's lives and teaches in Iraq. Once a week, she heads north to a refugee camp where she teaches art therapy to teenage girls. (Maria Mulcahy/Submitted)

As the province prepares to welcome its share of the 25,000 Syrian refugees coming to Canada, one St. John's woman is working to help those displaced in Iraq. 

Maria Mulcahy, 28, a teacher living and working in Iraq, volunteers with the Castle Art Project, a workshop held once a week in the northwestern city of Akre.

"We just go up there and we help them learn how to use different painting techniques, drawing techniques — they're in control of the project," says Mulcahy, who has also taught in Yemen.

Through the Castle Art Project, these Syrian refugees are brightening the walls of their camp, formerly a prison built under Saddam Hussein. (Maria Mulcahy/Submitted)

In an interview with CBC's St. John's Morning Show, Mulcahy said the therapy group is aimed at teenage girls, all of whom are Syrian — from Damascus and other towns along the Kurdish border. 

"They come up with the ideas for their drawings, which can be as simple as flowers or birds."

Mulcahy said the teenagers are also refugees, and their art showcases "a lot more abstract and visceral images of the conflicts that they've seen."

The group has started a Tumblr page to showcase the young artists of the Akre refugee camp. 

Living behind bars

The camp is on the site of a former Saddam Hussein prison, and the Syrians displaced there live in its cells. 

"The project was born out of the desire to make this a more livable place, a more positive place, to be surrounded by colour and images." 

Despite their traumatic experiences, Mulcahy said the girls are also regular teenagers. 
A teenage girl displays her painting. (Maria Mulcahy/Submitted)

"They've had a lot of life experience and it comes through ... But they're also teenage girls, and teenage girls are teenage girls wherever they are — if they're in St. John's, if they're in Iraq, if they're in a refugee camp."

One teenager, Mulcahy said, painted a portrait of herself and a boy she met in the camp. The boy and his family recently moved to Germany, leaving the teenage girl heart-broken. 

"This is the feeling of a normal teenage girl who's experiencing something we've all experienced," she said. 

A long way from home

The city of Erbil, where Mulcahy lives, is fairly secure. However, 30 miles away, the city of Mosul has become "an ISIL [Islamic State Iraq and Syria] stronghold," she said.

"Russia has been engaging with Syria quite a bit recently so our airport has been shut down a number of times because Russia has been moving missiles back and forth."

"It's not that you feel unsafe in the city, you're just aware of the region that you're in," she said. 

"No matter what country you're in, children are a handful. Combined with the obvious strains and stresses of living in a conflict zone, it's been quite tiring but quite rewarding at the same time."

Maria Mulcahy (second from left) pictured with some members of the art therapy group in Akre. (Maria Mulcahy/Submitted)

Mulcahy is home in St. John's for the holidays and said more conversations need to be had in the province about the severity of the Syrian crisis. 

"Nobody wants to be a refugee," she said.

"This is a tragedy that has happened to so many people in so many countries around the world ... They get treated like criminals almost, like 'Why do they want to come here?'"

What most people don't realize, she said, is that most families would gladly return to their homes if it was safe to do so.

Mulcahy said Newfoundlanders don't realize how lucky they are to live in such a safe environment, and that's something that should be shared.  


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.