Tehiyah students reach out to Syrian refugee kids living in Turkey

“I am 10 and read like all the time,” Mira wrote on a 5-by-7 card next to a photo of herself wearing a purple scarf. “What do you like to do? I hope I can someday see you in person.”

This note and photograph — along with two dozen others written by Mira’s fellow fifth-graders at Tehiyah Day School — recently traveled by mail from El Cerrito to the south of Turkey. Filled with the likes, dislikes and friendly greetings of 10-year-olds, the messages will be delivered into the hands of refugee children who have fled from Syria with their families.

Part 2 of the project will occur later in the year, when the Tehiyah students receive replies from the refugees — kids their own age but a world away in terms of geography and life experiences, said art teacher Janet Lipkin.

She hopes the exchange will encourage “the Tehiyah children to have empathy for the refugee children as well as respect.” For the refugees, she added, “it’s about reaching out … recognizing that there are people in other parts of the world thinking about you.”

Drawings by Syrian refugee children in Turkey and a portrait of a Syrian refugee child living in Turkey photo/david gross

A mix of cultural exchange, art therapy and political awareness, the project got its start in 2013 when photojournalist David Gross launched the Inside-Outside Project with his partner, photographer Mieke Strand. The couple live together in Oakland. The plan was to help people around the world connect with Syrian refugee children by releasing an e-book filled with drawings they had created as art therapy (along with photos of the kids).

Gross and Strand, along with a team of Syrians that included a social worker and art therapist, visited four schools and a tea garden in Turkey where they photographed hundreds of refugee children. The resulting digital book (also available as an iPad app at www.insideoutsideproject.org) contains art depicting the children’s wartime experiences as well as photographs that emphasize the dignity and shared humanity of the subjects.

“The images are really striking,” said Gross, who has covered war and human rights atrocities around the world, including mass graves in Kosovo. “I had an interest in war and how war affects children since going to Kosovo and seeing how people use children [in wartime, placing them in the middle of conflict, for example] and learning what children look like when they go through really horrible experiences. When I covered the tsunami in Thailand, there was a small space in one of the camps where they were having children draw pictures of the tsunami, and that’s what blew me away.”

Since the initial Inside-Outside Project, Gross has continued his campaign to use art both as therapy and to shine a light on the experiences of Syrian children. Last year, he worked with students at the Berkeley School, a private K-8 school, to create drawings and photographs to send to Syrian children. This year, he connected with Lipkin at Tehiyah.

Gross captivated the fifth-graders there, Lipkin said.

“He talked about what war is, and he talked about what being a refugee is,” she said.

He showed them pictures of where the Syrian children live in Turkey at the moment, including shots in which they looked like they were running and having fun, Lipkin continued. The Tehiyah students “all thought they were seeing very happy children. The children were happy, but they were anxiety-prone. … They’ve lost everything they know, and here is somebody coming with a camera to take pictures and it’s exciting. But their center is not there.”

Postcards to refugees from two students at Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito photos/courtesy tehiyah day school

Gross also gave a presentation about the history of portrait photography and coached the children as they created formal portraits using borrowed iPhones.

“The kids came to understand the face is like a mask that can make them look mean, angry, sad or happy,” Lipkin said. He also talked about more relaxed poses that reveal the true character of the subject. “This is what we were going for, that they could find their honest place — and they did.”

The Tehiyah students’ photos and notes are now in the hands of a small nonprofit that Gross works with in southern Turkey. They will be translated and distributed to Syrian schoolchildren soon. Gross said he hopes to coordinate an art therapist to work with the recipients so they can send images back.

In the meantime, Lipkin is planning to work with the Tehiyah students to create replica paintings of their portraits to send to the Syrian students as a second round of communication.

“People react really well when you give them an opportunity to do this thing,” Gross said. “It’s not politicized; it’s children.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a J. parenting columnist and former staff writer. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.