The Current

Telling their stories on canvas: Syrian refugees take art classes to overcome trauma

An art project in Toronto aimed to help Syrian refugees confront their trauma, by letting them tell their stories on canvas.

Toronto project helps Syrian refugees confront their trauma through art

Syrian refugees have been exploring their trauma through an art project called Our Art, Our Stories. (Submitted by Haya Abu Mealek)

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After fleeing Syria, Haya Abu Mealek realised she was the third generation of her family to become a refugee.

Her mother's family left Palestine in 1948 and Abu Mealek was born in Tunisia. She grew up in Syria, before the civil war forced her family to leave and come to Canada in 2012.

"Within me there is like a memory of dozens of cities, dozens of peoples," she told The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

Abu Mealek, 26, has been learning to express those memories — and the trauma of leaving them behind — through art.

Earlier this year in Toronto, she joined fellow Syrian newcomers and instructors in a free art class project called Our Art, Our Stories.

She said her first attempts were "really bad," but within a month she was experimenting with different techniques and materials, and telling her story on canvas.

Haya Abu Mealek didn't draw at all before the class. She exhibited, and even sold, some of the pieces she created during the classes. (Submitted by Haya Abu Mealek)

The experience has helped her a lot, she said.

"Every time I hold the colours in my hand, I had no idea what I was about to do," she said. "I just let my subconscious do all that creative thing."

"Each piece, it's a different story. It's like expressed one of my stories."

She said that she discovered something new about herself: "I can do some art."

Haya Abu Mealek created a portrait of her mother that explored their family's history. (Submitted by Haya Abu Mealek)

Art helps 'get rid of the negative energy'

Ousama Alkhatib, a 33-year-old Syrian living in Canada, co-founded the free art class. He believes art can function as a "therapeutic tool."

"People will just express themselves and get rid of the negative energy sometimes on their canvases," he told Lynch.

Ousama Alkhatib co-founded the class. He thinks art can create a safe space for people to explore their emotions. (Submitted by Ousama Alkhatib)

The aim of the project was to give people a safe space to explore their feelings, he said. Some participants drew sad stories, some drew their hopes for the future.

He has previously worked with children suffering trauma in the Middle East.

"I saw kids who started to draw tanks, people without heads, war pictures, things like that," he said.

"And after many sessions of art, they started to go back to their normal life, and drawing their dreams — like rainbows, houses, rivers."

"I saw how art helped them to get their normal life again."

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's Donya Ziaee and Kristian Jebsen.


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