x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

UAE charity brings art to Palestinian children

Dubai group Start offers art-based education to disadvantaged youths and orphans.

Michael Cooper, the head of the art programme at Repton School in Dubai, conducts a lesson at Hermann Gmeiner School in Bethlehem on Wednesday. Twelve volunteers took part in the Start project.
Michael Cooper, the head of the art programme at Repton School in Dubai, conducts a lesson at Hermann Gmeiner School in Bethlehem on Wednesday. Twelve volunteers took part in the Start project.

BETHLEHEM // Bent over her desk in concentration, the little girl swept a green pastel crayon across the paper with a look of delight. Under the watchful eye of Michael Cooper, a volunteer, the six-year-old Palestinian was making her first piece of art.

Mr Cooper, 30, crouched next to the little girl. Using his fingers, he was teaching her how to blend one colour into the next. Her small hand followed his. Along with 11 other volunteers from a Dubai-based charity that stages workshops for disadvantaged children across the Middle East, Mr Cooper arrived in Bethlehem on Wednesday. They will spend the next week donating their time, energy and enthusiasm to 70 Palestinian children who attend the Hermann Gmeiner School. About half of the children are part of SOS Palestine, a programme that provides a home and education to youth from troubled backgrounds.

Some of the children are orphans. Some have been abandoned, abused or severely neglected. One child, cheerfully adding streaks of yellow to white paper, is the son of a drug-addicted father and an impoverished mother. Another was orphaned by her father and ignored by her mentally handicapped mother; authorities found her wandering in the street, barefoot and alone, when she was a toddler. "They need a lot, they are deprived," said Grace Matar, the assistant principal.

The week-long initiative was organised by Start, the charitable arm of Art Dubai, which brings art education to children facing a variety of difficulties, from learning disorders to poverty, throughout the region. Most of the volunteers, like Mr Cooper, who heads the art department at Dubai's Repton School, are expatriates based in the Emirates; three have travelled from London and one from Beirut to join the group. And all have paid their own travel expenses.

"This is their gift to the programme and the kids," said Sonia Brewin, the Start director. Start has also taken volunteer groups to Jordan and Lebanon. "The idea is to collect creative people and encourage them to donate their time," Ms Brewin said. Creating art gives children a sense of accomplishment, she said. "With art, there is no right and wrong. If you have a good teacher, they can see something brilliant in everything."

And when the children see their art displayed on the classroom walls, they feel proud. Sven Muller, 40, an interior designer who lives in Dubai and has been volunteering with Start for two years, said, "I deeply believe in the power of creativity and arts. It can lead you in life." Budget allowing, Start will lend a hand anywhere in the Middle East. But for Jocelyn Chami, this particular location is important.

Ms Chami, 50, was born and raised in Beirut; both of her grandfathers left the Palestinian Territories in 1948 when Israel was established. When she heard about the programme in Bethlehem, she knew immediately that she wanted to participate. Ms Chami is a Dubai-based yoga instructor who finds a creative outlet in pottery. She modelled the cat stretch pose for a group of children, and speaking Arabic, guided them into the next posture.

"Yoga is a great thing to give them," she said. "It makes them physically strong and helps on a mental level. And it helps on a spiritual level - they connect to their hearts and souls." While both Mr Muller and Mr Cooper called volunteering a "privilege", Ibrahim Burmat, an art teacher at Hermann Gmeiner who will spend time alongside the Start group, said it was also a responsibility. As a graduate of the SOS programme, Mr Burmat, 23, knows first-hand the profound impact organisations such as Start make.

"I've been through the system and it was very successful for me," said Mr Burmat, who holds a bachelor's degree in fine arts and hopes to go on for a master's. "When you grow up, you realise how much it gave you. I feel a responsibility to give back and make it even better." Nearby, Mr Cooper, his face smeared with colour, taped the children's completed drawings to the wall. "I'm putting up the achievements of the day," he said.

He showed two girls, one with a long red ponytail and the other with curly dark hair, the stencils they would use the next day for screen printing. Sensing their interest, Mr Cooper gave an impromptu lesson, pouring canary-yellow ink into a frame and then revealing the pattern on the paper below. Mr Burmat translated Mr Cooper's directions and the girls took turns trying it on their own. "Their excitement is the payment for us. It's pure energy," said Mr Muller.

* The National