Art and the Refugee Experience

28 July, 2019

Hannah Miller

Summer 2019 IsraAID Humanitarian Fellow Hannah Miller shows the power of creativity and freedom of expression to bring healing and support to refugees in Germany. On sunny days, the container shelters provide little respite from the heat. Nehama, the art therapist, must inevitably leave her doors and windows open, often giving the youth at Oberhafen Shelter an open invitation to come inside and play. As Serena and I help organize the art supplies and prepare for therapy sessions, we are greeted by children who can hardly wait for the session to start.

Most of the refugees here speak German. I can understand a few words I’ve learned since arriving, as well as some others from my Bubbie’s Yiddish, but it’s difficult to speak to the kids. While organizing the art therapy room, one young girl began chatting to me in German. I told her I only know English. For a moment she looked confused, then turned and ran away. She came back moments later holding various objects, intending to give me a German lesson. I ended up learning more German from this little girl than I had from attending a class here! This girl’s actions were not an anomaly — every child I have met at the shelter is eager to teach me German and ensure I feel welcomed. Spending time together is a blessing, even if we cannot fully understand each other.

Art therapy allows youth to express their feelings through art rather than words. The emphasis is not on beautiful finished products, but rather on helping kids find ways to express the traumas they have faced. Some feelings too painful to speak about — such as war, leaving friends and family, or the experience of adjusting to Germany — are more easily expressed through art. Art therapists understand how to interpret these images and help kids find healthy ways to process their experiences. Serena and I are not trained professionals and do not lead the art therapy, but help Nehama with logistics and play with the kids as they wait for their turn. There are far more children than counselors at the shelter, so Serena and I are happy to help alleviate the staff members’ workload.

In addition to art therapy, Nehama plans other large-scale art projects that bring kids of all ages together. On days featuring these projects, we take on a larger role in planning and execution. Not only are they fun, but these projects allow Nehama to meet more children at the shelter and invite them to therapy, as well as gain a deeper understanding of the community dynamics as a whole.
The shelter itself contains numerous houses that look like large white boxes. The walls of these houses are bare, and aside from the occasional plant or poster, bear little personality. Although intended as temporary dwellings, the small structures can end up housing families for years as they wait for the approval of their asylum applications or face other complications. The plain exteriors serve as a reminder that Oberhafen is just a transitory stop on the way to starting a new life in Germany. However, with many children spending transformative years here, there remains a need to make the houses home. Last Thursday, Serena, Nehama, and I organized an activity for the kids to paint large wooden planters in the center of the shelter. We were joined by kids ranging from four to ten, as well as some parents. All excitedly joined in on painting the flowerpots. As kids picked out their acrylic paints and chose a side of a pot, it was beautiful to see their creativity impacting the entire atmosphere. With vibrant colors now the focal point of the shelter center, it began to look less like temporary housing and more like a promising place for a new beginning.

Despite our careful efforts to keep everyone clean and paint-free, every child who participated ended the project with paint-covered arms, feet, and even hair, chasing the others around and giggling.
Kids need opportunities to channel their creativity and experience color in their lives and communities. However, with parents dealing with bureaucratic requirements, children coping with trauma, and everyone adjusting to their new lives, the importance of creativity is frequently overlooked. I hope that these flowerpots will inspire the kids to continue pursuing their creativity, acting as a constant reminder of their ability to make new places feel like home.
— Hannah Miller, Summer 2019 IsraAID Humanitarian Fellow in Germany

Following the mass influx of refugees to Germany in 2015, IsraAID launched “Bridges of Hope,” which aims to provide holistic long term support for refugees upon their resettlement. On top of the cultural shock, many refugees carry deep physical and emotional scars from the violence and atrocities suffered during years of conflict; the most vulnerable among them are women and unaccompanied minors. IsraAID provides sustainable support for shelters throughout Germany by working directly with refugees and affected communities. Efforts have included the set up of mobile specialist trauma units, support programs for female survivors of sexual gender based violence (GBV), and a vocational program for women.

Hannah is currently attending Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts. She is one of two IsraAID Humanitarian Fellows volunteering in Germany for summer 2019.

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