Syrian Refugees Reclaim Childhoods through Arts Therapy

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Caroline Gluck/ECHO/EU
Refugee children wait at a food kitchen in Turkey in February 2015.

For many children escaping the Syrian war, the trauma of violence and loss lingers long after the journey away from home. In Sultanbeyli, a suburb of Istanbul with a burgeoning refugee population, children who have survived the worst of war are now dealing with the stress of settling in a town where they do not understand the language and are shut out of overcrowded neighborhood schools.


Enter Project Lift, an organization that has brought expressive arts therapy classes to Syrians aged four to 13 in an effort to ease post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms while providing a space for children to harness their creative impulses. In what were once drab municipal offices, Project Lift now facilitates a lively five-day curriculum of dancing, drumming, and drawing for Syrian refugees.


“If you can boost a child’s imagination, you improve their ability to problem solve,” says Leyla Akca, Chief Advisor to Project Lift. The program, which applies the Skills for Psychological Recovery model and includes home visits before and after the week-long program, has served over 600 children in Sultanbeyli. Run by licensed therapists and a cadre of trained volunteers who use a blend of English, Turkish, Arabic, and motions to communicate, Project Lift ensures that no student is left unheard or unattended to.


Akca emphasized the value of creative outlets as therapy for refugee children, some of whom are unable to “self-regulate” and therefore deal with conflict by acting out disruptively or closing further in on themselves. Such behavior makes it difficult for some refugee children to integrate in schools, where classmates may interpret erratic behavior not as a symptom of trauma but as pretext for exclusion or derision. By harnessing imaginative thinking through art, students are better able to visualize various solutions to problems they encounter.


“The kids are surprisingly resilient,” Akca reflects. “They come every day smiling, learning, and thriving.”


With any luck, come September, space will open up in local schools for more Syrian students. Equipped with the preparation of Project Lift, these children will be better prepared to embrace educational opportunities and take on the daunting challenges of integrating into a new school.