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Syrian and Iraqi refugees who escaped war find healing through art teacher’s therapy session

Syrian and Iraqi refugee students with art teacher

Calling Australia home: St Francis College, Crestmead students and Syrian refugees Namariq Alasadi and Ropier Swidan with art teacher Annette Andrews, who established an art therapy program to support the emotional trauma felt by the school’s intake of Middle Eastern refugees.

NAMARIQ Alasadi lost a pair of shoes and nearly all hope when she made the “crazy journey” to Australia to escape the deadly war in Syria.

The young woman who dodged death in her home country arrived in Australia in 2016 with “almost nothing left”.

“It was the hardest thing I have ever done,” Namariq, a Year 9 student at St Francis College, Crestmead, south of Brisbane, said.

“To leave my house, my school, my friends and family, to come to a strange country, but here I am safe and able to start a new life.”

She revisited her Syrian nightmare and eventual safe landing in Australia in a vibrant painting that is on display at the Logan Art Gallery.

Her painting shows a young blonde woman dressed in modern clothes who has lost her shoes, retelling the story of how Namariq lost her shoes in the war.

“In a war, you lose everything,” she said.

“Arriving in Australia I had almost nothing left, but I am young and strong and a happy person.

“In Australia I can achieve my dreams.”

Namariq’s work is on display next to paintings by 11 other Syrian and Iraqi refugees attending St Francis College.

The Lost Girl by Namariq Alasadi

Finding healing: Namariq Alasadi’s painting ‘The Lost Girl’.

In 2016 the Catholic school in Logan welcomed 50 Syrian and Iraqi families in response to Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge’s call for parishes to take in refugees from the Middle East.

These families fled from their homes after the Islamic State attacked the region, forcing a Christian genocide in Iraq and Syria.

The painful effects of the war and the frightening escape have scarred many refugees, especially students now living in Brisbane.

St Francis College art teacher Annette Andrews recognised this while teaching four Syrian students last year.

Ms Andrews found the students were turning up to class “depressed and overwhelmed” by their new school life.

Hoping to help the students, she put a proposal to her principal Tricia Kennedy to run art therapy sessions to address the students’ emotional and affective needs.

“Research shows that all people who are affected by war suffer some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, and suffer also from expectations of ‘instant’ integration, so suppress their past, and often their culture,” Ms Andrews said.

The benefits of art therapy can be profoundly life-changing, as proven by her young artists.

Research shows art therapy can improve self-expression; create an avenue to explore repressed emotions and conflict; increase a person’s self-esteem; and help with language skills by encouraging people to talk about their art process.

The results from the Syrian students are both heartbreaking and deeply inspiring.

Year 8 student Ropier Swidan was born in Damascus, Syria, but his family left for Australia in 2016 because of the war.

Although uncertain if he would fit in in Australia, his emotional journey has taught him a valuable lesson.

“Now I know that as long as I am with my family, we are home,” Ropier said.

For his art therapy sessions, Ropier took an abstract approach, painting a quadrant of four chairs, each representing a member of his family.

“The brown chair is my father, an old hard, chair which has been in my family a long time,” he said.

“My mother is the ottoman as she likes to sit close to the earth.

“My brother is the big blue chair. He is the oldest, and the hope of our family’s future is with him.

Family Sitting by Ropier Swidan

Family affair: Ropier Swidan paints about his family in ‘Family Sitting’.

“I am the hanging chair. I picked this chair to represent myself as I can do anything in this type of chair – sleep, rock, rest, relax – and that’s how I feel being in Australia now.”

Nour Obaid showed a different experience of being a refugee, saying she was not a victim but instead “a superhero, like Wonder Woman”.

“My life has had difficulties and been hard but my experiences have made me stronger,” she said.

“I have been drowned in darkness but I will rise like a star to shine brightly and powerfully.” 

Ms Andrews said the art project gave her students a space to express their feelings.

Their art is on public display at the Logan Art Gallery until March 10.

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