A children’s program at Al-Jana, The Arab Resource Center for the Popular Arts in Beirut—photo from www.al-jana.org
How do Palestinians in Lebanon counteract the trauma of war and displacement? Mirene Ghossein discovered one of the ways when she visited Al-Jana, the Arab Resource Center for Popular Arts (al-jana.org) in West Beirut last year. "Their flower paintings are tiny miracles," says Ghossein, "because there are no flowers at the refugee camps I visited.
Ghossein, who was born in Beirut and came to the U.S. as a 22-year-old bride, returned to her Westchester, New York home with 26 paintings created at Al-Jana. Ghossein’s collaboration with Al-Jana is her most recent effort on behalf of Palestinian refugees. She works mainly with two New York organizations—WESPAC Foundation and Adalah-NY—and insists her political advocacy comes naturally to the daughter of a judge. "You can’t turn your back on suffering," she says, "if you’ve heard about the need for justice from childhood on."
Amy Trabka, who teaches at Al-Jana, introduced Ghossein to the children’s art. She relocated to Beirut seven years ago from the U.S. when her husband took a job at the American University of Beirut. She was invited to conduct workshops at Al-Jana in drawing and design with children from refugee camps and low-income neighborhoods.
Pictures of the children’s artwork were taken by Andrew Courtney. All 26 of the children’s paintings are available to view and purchase at wespac.org/pcraa. They are touring the country until November 2009 when they will be sold at an online auction
Trabka had previously held adult workshops at Tamar Institute, another community arts NGO in Ramallah, on the West Bank. "My workshops were part of a larger project called From Oak Trees to the Stars, which aimed to encourage reading and creative expression, build libraries, train staff, and publish children’s writing. It is a Middle Eastern tradition to read beneath an oak tree," she explains.
For Trabka’s first art classes in 2002, children came from Burj Al-Barajneh, Shatila, and Mar Elias camps in and near Beirut and communities near Ain Al-Helwaeh, Sidon, and Tyre in South Lebanon. As violence increased and transportation became more difficult, children from the Kola, the Beirut neighborhood where Al Jana offices are located, filled empty seats. Most workshop participants are grandchildren of refugees expelled from Palestine in 1948.
They have grown up under military occupation, but these exiled children have heard stories about another life in another land from their grandparents, some of whom have keys to houses in villages that no longer exist. The dream of returning to Palestine as free citizens survives in the children—and in their art—which allows them a measure of personal if not political, freedom.
The wars of 1948 and 1967 were catastrophes for the indigenous Palestinians, displacing their population into refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Since their right of return has been denied by Israel, there are now four generations living in these camps. "Ask any of the refugees of any age," says Ghossein, "’where do you come from?’ and the answer will always be a town or village in historic Palestine, now Israel."
The political and economic future for this new generation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is bleaker than that which confronted their parents and grandparents. Unlike their elders, they lack traditional social and cultural resources to draw upon to make sense of their displacement and harsh treatment by Israel. Elder community members have been repositories of folklore, transmitters of collective memory, and links to the Palestinian past—but as they die, an inheritance is lost.
Al-Jana, founded in 1990, is one of a handful of institutions organized to cope with this deepening human crisis. At the core of the center’s classes and workshops in film, plays, journalism, and graphic design is an appreciation of the unique cultural and historical circumstances these children share.
In their book Art Therapy and Political Violence (Routledge, 2005), Debra Kalmanowitz and Bobby Lloyd argue that artistic expression can nurture dignity and self-respect when individuals feel powerless to control their political circumstances. The art practiced at Al-Jana and other nonprofit communities creates a kind of safe haven in a dangerous, unpredictable world.
In the world of creative freedom at Al-Jana, Trabka describes the teaching experience as communal. "We learn together as a group, through seeing and doing, and invent as we go," she explains. "Because there are so many obstacles these children will face in their lives—exercising their civil rights, getting an education and employment—we try to focus on what they cando as artists and individuals: express their feelings and tell their stories."
The children love to tell their stories and have produced puppet shows, exhibits, postcards, newspaper and magazine articles, and a book, Drawing and Design: Friday Mornings at Al-Jana. Many of them have worked with Trabka at Al-Jana for five or six years. Judging from their autobiographies, they like what most children like—ice cream, cartoons, swimming, and going to the mall on Sundays with their families. The boys love football, basketball, and wrestling. Mona wants to be a doctor, even though being a medical doctor is one of many skilled professions that Palestinians in Lebanon cannot practice.
Asked to describe himself, Abeer Aidi writes that he has "big, black eyes. When you see them, you will drown in them." And a big heart, "so big people can live in it." Aidi likes to sing, to write poetry "especially to my country, Palestine, that I wish to see."
Underlying the children’s self portraits is the loss of their country, the suffering of their parents and grandparents. Mahmoud Zaher writes: "I’m 15 years old. I’m a Palestinian, but I live here. Here in Lebanon. Palestine is the important thing I care about because it is my country. I feel it. And I will give my eyes to the one who will help me to go to Palestine."