DUBAI // Some of them have never picked up a paintbrush or felt-tipped pen, much less created a piece of art. For the most recent arrivals to the SOS Children's Village orphanage in Bethlehem, simply going to school is a feat they have never experienced. But a Dubai-based charity hopes to change that. Start, the charitable arm of Art Dubai, which stages art workshops across the Middle East for deprived children, is taking artists to the Palestinian city in the West Bank to work with orphans in an attempt to get them to express themselves on canvas.
Against a backdrop of poverty, hardship and deprivation, 15 artists, including nine from the UAE, will hold activities for 150 children in the Art is Magic initiative over the Christmas holidays. Some of the youngsters have lost both parents, some have been institutionalised after one remaining parent could not cope, others had been abused in their homes. "A lot of the children have never been to school, even at the ages of nine or 10," said Layla Kaiksow, a fundraiser for the orphanage. "It takes them a year or two before they get used to their new environment. Before they come here, they have little or no exposure to art.
"This is wonderful as they will be doing something new every day." Sonia Brewin, the director of Start, has held similar workshops in orphanages in Amman and refugee camps in Beirut, including the Shatila camp, where more than 12,000 Palestinians live within one square kilometre. The Bethlehem project, which runs from December 23 to December 30, is unusual in that it has involved delicate negotiations with Israeli authorities to gain access to areas where the children are most in need.
"At our previous workshops, the orphanage managers were really pleased with the outcome and said the children had blossomed and were happier and more vocal afterwards," Ms Brewin said. "In Shatila, they had never been taken to a museum before and the experience completely blew them away. "Together with the creative workshops, it gave them confidence and encouraged them to think they had something to offer.
"We were approached by the Bethlehem orphanage six months ago asking if we could do something similar [in the Palestinian territories] and thought it would be amazing." Ms Brewin said the children were in need of this kind of creative outlet. "Doctors and nurses are always called upon to give humanitarian aid but no one thinks to give these children painting materials or colouring pencils," she said.
"The help they give is about survival but a child has to have fun and joy, too. Culture is a basic human need as a way of having your own voice and finding your identity. This project is giving them back their childhood." Ms Brewin assembled an international band of artists and performers to entertain and engage the children. Among them are Noor al Suwaidi, an Emirati sculptor and painter; Michael Cooper, the British-born head of art from Repton School in Dubai, who will be holding ceramics workshops; Sven Mueller, a Dubai-based interior designer, who will get the children to invent chairs with special powers; and Freddie Rutz, a magician from Germany.
The artists are donating more than their time; they are giving up Christmas with their families and are paying for the trip themselves. They will leave more than 100 donated art packs with the children. Mr Mueller, who went to the Shatila camp, said: "I get the children to draw furniture which has different functions to get their imagination going. Previously they have come up with all kinds of funny, interesting inventions, such as a 12-metre-high chair that doubled as a treehouse.
"We are helping bring colour into sad, grey lives. Art might not be considered essential but creativity can help you step out of poverty. "It gives them a way to express themselves, and a big hunger once they see what is possible. It feeds their imagination." Ms Brewin will spearhead the project with her Start co-managers, Laila Demashqieh from Lebanon and Yasmin Abuamer from the Palestinian territories. "I think it will be extremely emotional for some of the Arab artists in particular," she said.
Ms Kaiksow said the children would get a huge boost from communicating with the artists in their own language. Although the Bethlehem orphanage has organised various art and music projects over the past three years, many have been pioneered from Europe by English speakers. "Some of the children do not have fully developed communication or language skills," she said. "Music and art are a way to communicate instead."
While art was not considered important at many schools across the Middle East, Ms Demashqieh said, it was like "therapy" for the children. She pointed to Jamal, 16, who had found an outlet in poetry, enabling him to express emotional frustrations stemming from living in a cramped refugee camp home with three generations of his family in Baaqla, Jordan. "The children start talking about their dreams and ambitions," she said.