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Art Therapy at Athena Centre

How I came to Volunteer on Chios Island

When a friend from my hometown in Toodyay, Western Australia volunteered to work with refugees on Chios Island, our local Arts Group of which I am a member, donated some art materials to take with her. In response to the gesture, volunteers at the Athena Centre for Refugee Women in Chios, said ‘I wish we had someone who could teach the women how to use these’. Answering to the call for help took me about 30 seconds! Our community opened their heart (and wallets) to support me in this project with an extensive range of supplies. In my shadow I carried my ancestors, a community of caring people and my professions.

A Personal Context

The story about refugees began to seed in my mind long before this assignment. My reasons for volunteering go beyond the obvious desire to help. Ninety five years ago my Greek maternal grandmother, widowed at 23 years with a baby and a toddler, made a similar journey across the sea during a different uprising between Greece and Turkey. She stayed on Lesvos and Chios Islands, eventually making her way to Egypt, being cared for by family in the city of Alexandria. Forty five years later, my family left Egypt for Australia under the Assisted Passage Scheme. Extended family cared for us until my father found a job and a home of our own. We lived in a street that housed many migrants and growing up, we felt safe in this close community.

The Value of Creating

As a child and a teenager, drawing and creating was my way of expressing myself and understanding the world around me. The combined feeling of being in a safe community and creating helped me through some challenging periods in my life. As I grew up, Art continued to play a central role and not surprisingly, is at the core of my chosen professions. I knew that art is a language of meaning. That through a visual expression, through doing and making, stories are told and recreated. Art connects, sustains and rejuvenates. It is a focus, to be present to ourselves and each other, and it has the potential to heal.

First impressions at Athena

The unmarked building stands proud in the streetscape. The Athena Centre is solid, yet unremarkable from the outside. There’s no signage to identify its inhabitants or what happens there. A flight of steps leads to a locked door ensuring women’s anonymity and safety. On my arrival, I was greeted warmly by the other volunteers and given an orientation that clearly showed their care and concern.

The hallway was the threshold between the worlds outside and where shoes, a symbol for the external world, resided. At the end of the hallway a store room housed the Centre’s supplies of tea, coffee, toiletries, craft and other goods. Through the passage on the left was the co-ordinator’s office.

The main hub was for meeting and greeting and where volunteers undertook administrative tasks when not engaged with the women. Not to be underestimated in importance, was a kitchen, where women made a hot drink and something to eat. Further along, of equal importance was the bathroom, where the women could have a hot shower as the Souda camp does not have hot water.

A look around showed clean, tidy and compact spaces where activities such as art, craft, and meditation took place, offering opportunities for language development in addition to more formal language learning. Different languages are taught depending on the volunteers’ ethnic backgrounds. During my time at the centre, we shared ten languages between four of us.

Art Therapy, an Unknown Language – in this context, called Art.

It was not difficult for me to imagine that art therapy would be of benefit. However, the term ‘Art Therapy’ seemed foreign, perhaps threatening, or simply not understood. This was not new to me, even though in Australia, ‘Art Therapy’ is more widely accepted.

The social, and personal benefits attributed to art and craft as an enriching activity for the development of new skills or shared interests, is understood. The facilitator’s role in an art or craft group usually is that of teacher, aimed to impart information in ‘how to’ make something. My role as an art therapist includes knowledge of the art materials, but not limited to their use. Art therapists recognize the context of culture, how, which and when materials would be introduced. The process of creating and the engagement with materials is as important as the end result. Awareness of each person’s entry and presence in the group, their interest, focus and demeanour guided me in my interactions. I quickly understood that the western notion of ‘Art Therapy’ was NOT how I would work in this context.

My initial disappointment was that only one hour per week was available for the art-making, as the women were busy learning languages and other activities that were on the time-table. Closer to time I was invited to attend three times a week for three hours per day. Although only two women attended on the first day, as curiosity amongst them (and the volunteers) became apparent, interest and anticipation about the ‘art’ group spread and ‘Art’ blossomed. The room soon filled with women who sought this ‘art’ experience.

Art Therapy Activities

A number of creative journals were lovingly hand-stitched by women in our artistic community of Toodyay. Women from one part of the world reached out to women refugees, not with words, but with creativity, to express their concern for them and to show their support and compassion. The journals were treasured by those lucky enough to receive one, to write or to draw in them to keep their hopes and memories alive.

Another friend tirelessly cut and hemmed the fabric that was made into scares and aprons. No theme was given. Women could decorate them as they wished. This method of giving minimal directives enables participants to draw upon their own storylines and creativity without ideas being imposed on them. The materials themselves, became the ‘bare canvas’ upon which they expressed themselves. Patterns, colours and words embedded upon the various items they made belonged uniquely to them. One young woman painted the words ‘Kurdistan, I miss you’ in her country’s national colours. The same young woman sat beside me for my entire time at Athena, without words, only with her eyes and her hands, she soaked up everything around her and participated in every activity. Another wrote the name of her child and stitched a garden of flowers on the pocket, symbolically keeping her little one close to her.

One day I platted a small scarf made out of the Alpaca wool that I was given. The women, inspired by this, made scarves they decorated with beads that adorned the room. The practical became creative and beautiful. Amidst grey skies and saddened hearts, the colours and textures of the dyed wool was a soothing salve.

Little boxes made from fabric were hand-stitched and decorated. A woman said she made hers for her husband, for his birthday. It gave her great pleasure, reminding her of their love for each other.

Being almost Christmas, some women used this as a theme to celebrate the non-Muslim festivity. I wondered if it was a way of ‘joining in’ with the local traditions and connecting with the locals.

I went to Chios with an open mind, a suitcase full of art materials and the support of community. Materials that were donated and suggestions by friends guided me to create a program that was enriching. The activities had practical, creative and cultural components with a ‘loose’ structure and freedom to be personalised.

Looking Back

Refugees’ lives are challenging and fraught with uncertainty, experiencing a lack of privacy, frustration and deprivation in their daily lives. There is grief and trauma, loss, terror and fear for their lives, their loved ones, their future and the strange and unknown ways of being in another country. Some women are on their own, others have lost or left loved ones behind. Some faced abuse and violence in the camp. The Athena Centre offers advocacy, support and respite to women facing the harsh realities of life in the Souda camp. Its team of volunteers provide a safe place where women can ‘recharge’. What struck me most, was how even in these most dire circumstances, the younger women did what young women anywhere probably do – blow-dry their hair, mend a broken bra strap, put on a face mask or paint their nails! How heartening, that at the Athena Centre, these little pleasures can be indulged. What a joy to be reminded of times in my life with family or with friends creating together on the floor as these women did. Music played in the background. When someone became tired of listening to another’s music, they simply voiced their intent to play something from their own country of origin. Little was spoken in words, much was expressed in body language, in art-making and in engagement with the art materials.

I am sure that I am not alone in feeling overwhelmed by the human suffering that is reported on the news. What reaches us is sanitised, the reality on the ground is much worse. I am certain that those who volunteer are also enriched by the experience, as I have been. Shining the light on the plight of innocent people in tragic circumstances, also shines the light on ourselves and those who follow our journey. No-one in their right mind would flee their country to undergo the treacherous journey by sea if not in fear for their life. We cannot change the world, but doing a little can make a big difference to the lives we touch.

— Dr Despina Weston AThR

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