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Drawing hope from adversity in Yemen

UNICEF Yemen/2017/Moohialdin
© UNICEF Yemen/2017/Moohialdin
Children and artists who participated in the drawing and art exhibition workshop in Sana’a show their certificates.

By Eman Al-Sharafi and Peter Tubman

Sana'a, Yemen, 18 June 2017 – An Art workshop and exhibition has offered a priceless outlet for children coping with conflict in Yemen.

"My objective is to add beauty to what has been done by the creativity of mankind through the ages, and deliver my message in spreading peace and freedom". Such are the noble ambitions of Yemeni artist, Ghada Hadad, who is helping curate a children's art workshop and exhibition in Sana'a, Yemen.

Designed in collaboration between UNICEF and a group of nationally-renowned artists, the workshops encourage children to express themselves through art. 125 children have now taken part in the workshops, and their work proudly hangs in the exhibition space alongside works of more established artists in an exhibition in Sana'a.

The exhibition focuses on the themes of 'Hope' and 'Peace', with 11 nationally-renowned artists asked to create a new piece of art especially for the exhibition showing what these ideas mean to them. The artists came from all across Yemen, including Sana'a, Taizz, Hodeidah, Dhamar, Radaa and Aden.

Many of the children involved in the workshops have witnessed the shocking results of conflict through airstrikes and ground fighting. In many instances it becomes difficult to come to terms with what they have witnessed, and the risk of such distress affecting them long-term is almost unavoidable.

Ghada struggled as a child to express herself, and found art to be one of the few outlets that enabled her to say what she could not express in words. "My own childhood was full of lines and colours on the walls of my home and on the streets, I left marks and scribbles everywhere. But I suffered from a lack of drawing materials. So I decided since that time to help children develop their talents".

Participants are given the opportunity to explore as many forms of expression as possible, such as music, collage, drawing and painting, but there is an almost tragic consistency in the message their work conveys.

Many of the paintings express frustration and confusion at the ongoing conflict, and one painting shows a gun being seized and crushed by the encroaching weeds. Another work shows a shocked, blood-shot eye being pulled open by a hand. In a conflict which has lasted for more than two years, trauma is all too real and unavoidable.

Malekah, one of the children exhibiting her work for the very first time, said that she wanted to use the opportunity to show her love for her country, but also to "show the innocent children and their fear of war, and how they are oppressed in their own country." It also awoke her ambitions, and she proudly told me she wanted to become the greatest artist in the whole of Yemen. 

UNICEF Yemen/2017/Moohialdin
© UNICEF Yemen/2017/Moohialdin
Some of the paintings that was exhibited during the work workshop.

The exhibition provided a rare opportunity for the young painters to express themselves, and many felt a great sense of achievement. Another of the young artists, Hathim, said, "I was able to draw my feelings. My emotions were drawing, not my hands. I felt that I was a real artist and people were coming to see my drawing. I felt I had achieved something."

Osama, another young artist, described how the workshop had empowered him, and made him feel more confident in his ability to express himself in a constructive way. "I felt that I was an artist like the famous people. I could show what I was feeling in the picture that I drew."

The immediate results of the workshop are plain to see. More than 150 visitors have come to the exhibition each day, and the art produced shows incredible insight into the viewpoints of children during this critical time.

The long-term psychological impact of workshops like this are less visible, however. It is hoped that such activities will empower and encourage children to express themselves, and empower them to demand an end to the conflict which has loomed over them for two years.

More than 1,500 children have been killed and 2,500 maimed by fighting, but the numbers are much higher than UNICEF can record and verify. Thousands more have witnessed active conflict. Many children are also forced to marry young, are exposed to sexual violence, or are subject to child labour. We continue to track instances of children being recruited or used by armed parties to the conflict, and call on all parties to cease this practice.

The effects of the war are far reaching, and UNICEF estimates that more than 6.2 million children needs some form of protection assistance, either through mine risk education, psychosocial support, legal aid, or reintegration services for former child soldiers.

UNICEF continues to fundraise to support this and similar protection activities. With the kind support of Switzerland, Germany and Japan, UNICEF has been able to make a start on this long-term process, but the needs are enormous, and more than 3.5 million children are estimated to be in urgent need of psychosocial support to help them deal with distress caused by the conflict.

UNICEF provides this support through child friendly spaces which offer a safe space for children to play and begin to address their distress. Given the traumatic events that many children have seen, discovering a way to express themselves cannot be underestimated. The workshops in Sana'a are a crucial first step towards identifying and address the distress they must deal with every day.

Ghada, too, has re-discovered the subtle but powerful effect of using drawing as a way to soothe tensions, and instils this same knowledge in the children she works with. "I am trying to be the safety valve for communities who are exposed to risk. I want to draw hope for children". 



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