Finding the words and images to say

three children working on drawingGuest blogger: Elisabetta Iberni

I still cannot say whether my first encounter with Elizabeth, in the Roma Mahalla of Mitrovica, happened by accident or by destiny. I have been working there for almost two years with Danish Refugee Council, in my capacity as clinical psychologist, on educational and health issues with the RAE community returned since 2007 from lead-polluted camps. So, when I found out that she was running catch-up classes for those children in Fushe Kosova, I realized how difficult and challenging her mission was. But her enthusiasm and energy proved instantly contagious and I was honoured to accept the invitation to offer psychosocial workshops in Fushe Kosova. So, I tiptoed into the atmosphere of this homemade school, where children are eager to learn new things and to improve their writing and reading skills so to decode the surrounding world. In the beginning, I just came to silently observe their classes, watching a vivid kaleidoscope of numbers, letters, colourful paintings and listening to the jingly alphabet repeated in chorus with the teacher Avdil for dozens of times. I am sure that I was more impressed than they were, looking at my notebook and wondering what I was writing on it. I can now tell you: from my notes on …July 2011 “in general, the majority of children tend to cooperate and support each other: especially the most skilled with the ones needing more time…they demand attention and constant feedback with an overwhelming rate…it is remarkable their capacity to accept constructive criticism about their performances”.

To participate in the psychosocial workshops, children are invited to fill an application and explain their motivation: Elizabeth proposes it as a proper task where children have to exercise their writing skills.   The most popular reason they mention is to learn, immediately followed by to read and to write. There are also some enthusiastic of visual arts who say that they like to draw, putting beside original paintings as if it was a competition for the best artists. And finally, the introspective ones (or maybe those who had a more precise understanding the aim of this exercise) tell that they would participate to talk and to express their feelings and emotions and someone said also because there won’t be noise so they can have a peaceful afternoon. To dedicate to everyone an adequate span of space and time, each workshop will host a maximum of eight children, so all of them will have chance to participate in rotation.

I have been sincerely surprised by the curiosity and spontaneity that children shown for exploring the immaterial dimension of their feelings and thoughts. Even the unleashed triad composed by Avdush, Gazmend and Afir, (which together resemble balls in a pinball machine), were sitting composedly at the working table holding in their hands a sharp pencil. They listen carefully the main objective, oriented to develop their creativity and imagination to better understand both the external and internal world and to learn how to know themselves. Presentations start and everybody says his/her name, age and name of brothers and sisters, so that I propose to draw their family. Feebly a tender protest rises up: they have too many people to draw if they want to represent realistically their family members. But they are already absorbed in their work; the most industrious complete the family portrait with names and ages.

Children’s drawings have a great power of unveiling emotional movements of their internal world, adaptations and responses to critical events such as the loss of an important caregiver or abandonment and terror instilled all day by the evil eyes of some adult living in a domestic environment deeply contaminated by violence. Sometimes the details revealing the unsaid may be the characters’ dimension, or their spatial distance, colours’ use, omissions and pressure on the sheet.

Florinda, 12 years didn’t draw her mother, who died a few months ago, and she neither wants to talk about it, though in a corner she drew and then cancelled the profile of two human figures closed and confused in a hug: it is a powerful symbol which can give off the deep meaning of a relationship that can’t be forgotten but also remembered to not feel pain for that place left empty. Children take a breath when finished to draw and some of them express a wish to talk about their fears and the future. And if the future is (almost) always bringing positive things, the present is often marked by death and roughness. Ajsha finds space to tell us a detailed and precise story where two boys had a fight and one died. I feel that there are many things that need being worked through, and probably it is not necessary to touch upon everything.

What matters more is to find words (and images) to tell them. The workshop came to its end and Erhan, 10 years old, approaches us smiling and sits, making himself well comfortable, on a chair in front of me, and says: “I want you to ask me questions, about who I am, what I like and what I don’t like, what I want and what I’m afraid of”. In my mind an insight pops up: this is a good stating point, the talking cure conquered the children of Fushe Kosova.

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