Brave Smile, Artful Hands
Making art affirms possibilities of joy, connection and beauty for refugee children, despite the harsh circumstances in which they live.
Art activities can help children cope with the psychological and emotional stress of life in a refugee camp, giving them means to express what they feel inside, positive or negative, but may lack the words to say. At the Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre, we work with Rohingya children and youth to help restore some of the innocence and hope of childhood. RCMC provides art materials, skills-building and educational opportunities, and a sense of community through cultural workshops, trainings, and mentorship.
Thirteen-year-old deaf-mute Rohingya boy Mohammed Asun is now a well-known fixture at the RCMC. Asun, despite being deaf and mute, vibrantly expresses himself through drawing, dancing, play and ‘gossiping’ with companions of different ages. The RCMC team has been working with Asun for nearly two years, after first identifying him at the subject of a memorable photo from the 2017 influx. That photo, which came to symbolize the desperation of the Rohingya people for global audiences, captured Asun in a state of extreme hunger and distress. After first engaging Asun in non-formal and recreational MHPSS activities for children in Camps 9 and 10, the RCMC slowly begun the process of create a safe space for Asun’s inner child to express himself through art in order to heal and blossom.
Asun was born deaf-mute in Rakhine state, Myanmar, though his exact date and place of birth are unknown. During the 2017 influx, 63-year-old Rohingya man Abul Alam discovered Asun alone on the roadside. ‘While fleeing Burma, I found a little boy who was deaf, mute, thirsty and hungry,’ said Abul Alam, who now fosters Asun in Balukhali. He says it's a challenge for him to take care of Asun as well as his own children, but he provides for Asun a home.
Asun used to have very bad dreams at night after first arriving in the camp. The sight of Bangladesh military personnel in the camps and helicopters in the sky brought up traumatic memories of the violence in Myanmar. He would ask his foster father, ‘Will this helicopter bomb us?’ The first drawings Asun produced in the art activity sessions depicted violence, burning villages and helicopters raining down fire. Through crayon and paper, he expressed his greatest fears and most traumatic memories.
This act of drawing allowed Asun to begin to confront, control and distance himself from the terrible events of his past.
When the RCMC production stream launched in Camp 18, Asun participated in various workshops such as papercraft and thanaka, allowing him to connect with children from different camps and artisans from the larger Rohingya community. These activities, in combination with the earlier non-formal and recreational sessions organized by IOM’s mental health officers, gave Asun the opportunity to forge social connections with his peers and elders. A child of great energy and enthusiasm, Asun is always eager to engage in games and play, but is sometimes bullied by bigger children. The bullying potentially exacerbates the alienation and loss caused by the violent rupture from homeland and family, deepening Asun’s trauma. Thus, the social bonds Asun forms as a member of the RCMC act as an important protective factor, countering the trauma by fostering a sense of belonging and community and building confidence. Mentoring Asun has become a team affair for the RCMC. He has formed close bonds with many adult members of the team, including the field coordinator and the curator, and is treated with great affection and care by RCMC cultural agents and artisans. In particular, he looks up to teenage Enayet, a talented young artist from Nayapara camp who produces paintings and illustrations of growing imagination and skill for the RCMC collection.
NURTURING THE CREATIVE CHILD
In pantomime, Asun expresses that he learned many things after joining the RCMC, and that he enjoys and is fascinated by the cultural objects produced for the collection by skilled Rohingya artisans. His creativity and cleverness come through in myriad ways. He likes to write his name with different spellings, using a different color for each letter. He is playful and attentive to other children. He is a very good visual learner and likes to explain things around him using drawing or pantomime. He prefers drawing from his own imagination rather than imitating, and gets excited to try new things.
Sometimes, he showcases the aesthetic gifts of an architect; other times, he reveals the practical sensibilities of an engineer.
Asun also has an astounding gift for pantomime. He has an unusually expressive face, with large sparkling brown eyes and a larger-than-life smile. When telling stories, he exaggerates his facial expressions for effect — widening his eyes, baring his teeth, flashing a huge smile. He can communicate questions, memories and narratives entirely through gesture, body language and facial expression. He moves with incredible grace, fluidity and control, like a dancer.
He also communicates through the language of drawing, sketching buses, boats, airplanes, and animals. The airplane is a favorite subject; he says he wants to travel the world. Sometimes he ask how people go outside the camps and travel to other countries. Then he realizes its not possible for him to leave the camp.
ASUN'S JOURNEY THROUGH HIS SKETCHBOOKS
Three years have now passed since Asun’s arrival in Cox’s Bazar as a refugee with a new foster family. Though refugee camp life can never be normal, Asun’s life has mostly stabilized since the early days of nightmares, trauma and desperation. He is eager to learn, meet people and experience the unknown. He attends two child-friendly spaces in the camp, and says that there are children on his block in Camp 10 who understand him better than other children.
Asun’s earliest drawings show violence, fear and the sufferings of refugees. His recent drawings depict nature, togetherness, and people helping each other. Many illustrate problems faced by people in his community, and he likes to depict community engagement — i.e. joining in meetings — as a way to solve these problems. Sometimes he draws scenes of togetherness and belonging, showing everybody living harmoniously and helping each other. Nature attracts him very much. His favorite color is sky blue. When asked why, he points to the sky and sea.
Comparing Asun’s early and recent sketchbooks is revelatory. The change in subject matters indicates how Asun has used drawing to work through trauma, achieving maturity and personal growth. Additionally, the sketches showcase his growing skill as an artist.
‘When I was younger, my drawings were not very good. My new drawings are much better. Gradually, I am learning many things.’
Asun has now graduated from crayons to using watercolor, which he prefers because of his newfound appreciation for different color techniques and admiration for RCMC artist Enayet Khan. CMC’s art and cultural activities are helping him master new skills, and express his memories, feeling, and emotions in positive, generative ways. There is more light in his eyes than in the early days. Art has given him the means to express the thousands of unspeakable words sparkling there.
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Written by Rezaul Karim, psychologist and field coordinator of the Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre.