Syrian kids adapt to new life in Canada through art therapy

Five Syrian children are adapting to their new life in Saskatoon through an unconventional method: art therapy.

Open Door Society program helps refugee siblings process trauma of war through art

The Alcheikh siblings, originally from Syria and now living in Saskatoon, are using art therapy to deal with trauma. (Omayra Issa/CBC)

An unconventional Saskatoon program is helping six-year-old Syrian refugee Mahmud Alcheikh heal from the trauma of the Syrian civil war.

Once a week, he sits around a large table in a small room at Queen Elizabeth School with his siblings Zeina, 9, Janna, 10, Abdulwhab, 12, and Mohamed Alcheikh, 13. The children draw the new contours of their lives away from war, coloured pens in hand. 

"They are full of energy and their creativity is increasing at every session. They're becoming much more open," said art therapist David Baudemont, who has been working with the Alcheikh kids since April.

The family left the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor in 2012 to Ar-Raqqah where they hid for a couple years. The family made it to Turkey in 2015 before coming to Saskatoon this September. 

Signs of trauma

Baudemont said art therapy can help survivors of war to heal.

"If you are picturing your uncle who is still in Turkey, you're going to be able to forget the pain of not having that uncle." 

He believes the Alcheikh children are particularly vulnerable.

"There were some signs in the drawings there was probably some trauma involved. So we've decided to work with the whole family," he added.

The students create Christmas cards at their last therapy session. (Omayra Issa/CBC)

For their last art therapy session of the season, the Alcheikh children drew Christmas cards for their family and friends on Wednesday. Their drawings showed scenes of life in Syria and in Canada, including pictures of Christmas trees and snow. 

"I like Canada," said Mahmud Alcheikh, the youngest of the siblings.

Dealing with trauma

Saskatoon Open Door Society, which provides services for refugees and immigrants, offers the art therapy sessions to Syrian refugee children who might have difficulties verbalizing their experiences.

"Children are very sensitive. We said that through art therapy they don't have to speak. It's a way to deal with their trauma," explained executive director Ali Abukar.

"We realize this a way to help these young people to deal with the situations they come from and help them transition into normalcy." 

Baudemont said the art workshops are already showing positive results.

"In the school, they've told us that things are getting better, that they're opening up, they are also more keen to accept the school discipline," he said.

The art therapy sessions will resume in January 2017.