"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world" - Nelson Mandela

Psychosocial support for Iraqi child IDPs through art



The humanitarian crisis in Iraq which has grown out of unprecedented Islamic State (IS) advances into the country has generated a number of problems, not least exacerbating the historic tensions between Iraq’s different sectarian and ethnic groups. IS, a group adhering to extremist Sunni ideology, has embarked on a wave of ethnic cleansing in Iraq, executing or expelling Shia, Kurd, Yazidi, Christian and Turkoman groups in addition to others who refuse to adhere to its ideology[1]. This in turn has led to opposition militia targeting innocent Sunnis in reprisal attacks[2]. As the conflict and killing continues, we can expect to see a rise in ethnic and sectarian hatred between these groups.

What little humanitarian funding is available is channeled into the basic survival programs of shelter, sanitation, security, food and medicine. However, IDPs, especially children, have psychological needs which are not addressed by these programs. The trauma of fleeing one’s home, witnessing direct conflict and destruction, and the breakdown of social and support networks will leave a lasting negative affect[3]. If not properly addressed, this will lead to a generation of psychologically damaged Iraqis. Due to the sectarian nature of the conflict this trauma is likely to also be displaced to the Sunni population at large, leading to an interaction between psychological damage and sectarian/ethnic hatred. This kind of trauma and the associated prejudice against perceived perpetrator groups is recognized in the conflict and psychology literature as being a significant factor in future conflicts[4].

In response to this, the Arab Human Rights Academy has run psychosocial support projects in the form of arts workshops. These have been proven to be highly successful, and as such the Academy is seeking additional funding to begin running more of these workshops based on the below framework. If you are interested in supporting us, please contact us on projects@arabhumanrights-academy.org.

Work completed by children in previous workshops can be seen and purchased here, with all money being donated to the children.

Project Goals

The project will consist of painting workshops for child IDPs, being run by project leaders of mixed ethnicities and sects, and will use psychology and art to encourage positive attitudinal change. Mixed workshop would engage many children from all different sects and ethnicities and will help overcome tension through human contact and staff-led sessions which highlight the importance of coexistence and tolerance.

The project has three goals. Firstly, it aims to generate positive relationships between and perceptions of and between different ethnic, religious and cultural groups in Iraq. Given that displacement has affected the full range of ethnicities and sects in Iraq – with approximately 58% of IDPs being Sunni Arabs, 29% Shi’a Arabs, and 13% minorities such as Shabaks, Kurds, Armenians, and others[5] – the IDP camps provide an excellent ‘melting pot’ of people with which to work with, and an excellent place to begin inter-ethnic/inter-sect cooperation activities. Many of the camps are divided by sect or ethnicity in order to prevent clashes and to minimize costs – however, this practice is damaging to longer term reconciliation, which needs to be addressed. This project is an excellent way to bring different people together under the banner of art, peace and tolerance, which are the key messages of the project. Secondly, it aims to address the psychological trauma of child IDPs currently residing in camps in Iraq and prevent the kind of damage-hated interaction noted in the first section. Thirdly, it aims to create a group of skilled persons who will be able to train new project leaders and expand the project at a reduced cost in order to reach a greater amount of subjects.

As such, the activities of the project will consist of leadership, workshop, cultural and conflict sensitivity and art therapy training for a selected group of Iraqi IDPs; painting workshops for child IDPs led by trained IDPs; work showcases within IDP camps; and monitoring and evaluation activities. The project will then be replicated by the experienced project leaders through training of a new set of IDPs, allowing the project to expand at a low cost and allowing the IDPs to gain valuable project and personal management skills.

Theories of Change

The project utilizes a number of well-established psychological and sociological theories to achieve its goals. The goal of trauma therapy will be addressed using traditional art therapy techniques. Literature in the field supports the use of art as a tool for externalizing, understanding and processing emotional trauma by allowing the subject to produce a physical ‘text’ which describes their emotions. By working on this text, the subject will go through a process of thinking about the trauma, and as such will begin to subconsciously work through the issues associated with it. By putting these emotions to paper, the trauma will become externalized and allow the subject to better accept and move along associated psychological paths. Our project leaders will be trained to run effective art therapy classes, subtly encouraging the child IDPs to work through any emotional trauma they may have. The opportunity to socialize with other affected IDPs in a normalized setting is expected to also go a long way towards healing and management by providing for new social and support networks, which are an important part of trauma healing.

The goal of positive inter-ethnic and inter-sectarian interaction will be achieved by utilizing both mixed ethnicity/sect project leaders, and by selecting mixed ethnicity/sect subjects. Throughout the program the children will be encouraged to interact and work with children of different ethnicities and sects on a cooperative and equal basis. This approach of using mixed instruction and groups has been established as an effective one in adjusting group perceptions, and has been used successfully in Israel and Palestine, for instance[1]. This meets the requirements set in ‘intergroup contact theory’, a well-established and tested theory for improving intergroup relations and perceptions[2]. By interacting in an un-coerced, social, equal and cooperative environment, the subjects will be encouraged to adopt a positive attitude to each other. This affect is expected to be passed up to the parents, who will be invited to attend sessions alongside their children and to interact with each other in informal after-session activities.

The project is expected to have both short and long term impact. In the first instance, it will address psychological trauma inflicted upon child IDPs and serve to rebuild social and support networks for this vulnerable group. This impact is expected to be relatively immediate and powerful and will go a long way towards addressing the mental health of child IDPs.

The longer term impact of the project is expected to address tensions which would theoretically arise in the future between different sects and ethnicities. By improving cross-ethnic and cross-sect relations, we will be reducing the chance of future sectarian and ethnic conflicts arising between these groups as well as working towards non-sectarian democracy. Further, by including a project expansion element, we will be providing IDPs with an opportunity to gain management and project leadership skills, as well as allowing them to address IDP related issues themselves, giving the project an important sense of local ownership. Local ownership is a key part of making projects successful, and as such we expect the outcome of the projects to improve substantially over time.

[1] Bekerman, Z., Habib, A., Shhadi, N., 2011, Jewish-Palestinian Integrated Education and its Potential Influence on National and/or Ethnic Identities and Intergroup Relations in Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 37:3, pp.389-405, Routledge, Oxon
[2] Yzerbyt, V., & Demoulin, S. (2010). Intergroup Relations. In Handbook of Social Psychology. John Wiley & Sons, Hokoben, NJ
[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iraq-crisis-amnesty-international-uncovers-evidence-of-ethnic-cleansing-by-isis-9705719.html
[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-29603272
[3] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18300649
[4] http://www.psychoanalysisdownunder.com.au/downunder/backissues/6/427/large_group_vv
[5] Total internally displaced population is estimated to be 2.76 million (as of November 2009)”. Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. March 2010

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