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News > Bradfieldian Stories > Tales of Art: Volunteer teaching in Lebanon

Tales of Art: Volunteer teaching in Lebanon

Kitty Parker (K 13-18) and Ben McBain (G 13-18)

In the Summer of 2022, united by their admiration of the work undertaken by the Alsama Project and a shared belief in the transformative nature of Art, Bradfield contemporaries and friends Kitty and Ben, joined forces to deliver ‘Tales of Art’, a course they designed, to the young Syrians living in the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon. Their undertaking could proudly have been the achievement of a lifetime of any normal person, however, Kitty and Ben are more exceptional in this regard. Read their story as shared with the Bradfieldian...

Early Inspiration

From an early age, Kitty had always dreamed of going into the Non-Governmental Organization sector, idolising organisations such as Oxfam and Save the Children. At university, she studied Health and Human Sciences and one module dissected these global NGOs forcing her to challenge her preconceptions, with her newfound awareness of issues tied to colonialism, funding challenges, and poverty tourism. She also became interested in neurodevelopmental conditions in the UK and did her dissertation on mothers' perspectives on raising children with autism. After leaving University, she became an autism practitioner at Priors Court which taught her a wealth of knowledge about disability in the UK. One of her pupils took to art and she developed this within her practice as a therapeutic method to de-escalate situations and as a way of communication.  

Following Bradfield, Ben studied International Relations with a focus on Middle Eastern studies at Exeter and did his dissertation on the impact of refugee migration on Lebanon and Jordan, specifically Palestinian and Syrian refugees. His focus was very much on the region and in the NGO sector. During his second year, he discovered the Alsama Project and spent a month working with them over the Summer. He was impressed with their approach and felt that their values aligned with his own, hence suggesting them to Kitty for their shared project.

The Alsama Project supports refugee teenagers and women in all the Lebanese camps. It has a unique focus among NGOs operating in the region of supporting young refugees who would otherwise have the potential to be lost to crime, early and enforced marriage, or dangerous migration routes to Europe. They deliver an innovative curriculum via a series of education centres, sports hubs, and social enterprises in the camps that provide teenagers with a standard education in six years, with many activities being run by the refugee communities themselves. These special qualities of the Alsama Project are what drew Ben and Kitty to choose this NGO as the one to partner with for their initiative.

Motivation

‘We wanted to work with an NGO that we believed in and agreed with morally. After studying the Alsama Project at length and speaking to them we determined they had an extremely positive and effective outlook on humanitarian aid and we felt as though we could have a good impact working alongside them.’

When they were at Bradfield both Kitty and Ben took the IB programme, and appreciated the greater breadth that this system allowed them, developing passions for Art and Art History respectively.

‘My favourite subject was Art History in which I learned to analyse religions, conflicts, cultures and big ideas, all through artwork. I was fascinated by the cultural and political side of history which encouraged me to study international relations at university where my interest in the Middle East began. Art History also led me to love art’ Ben

‘I will always hold IB Art at Bradfield close to my heart. The freedom I was given in this class to develop my professional exhibition with 12 final pieces, learn the process of curating a space, mounting artwork, writing rationales, and choreographing a space to represent the theme that I intended was pretty life-changing for me. Mr Whittaker was a role model throughout my sixth form and challenged me to push myself’ Kitty

Kitty and Ben felt that Art would be a great subject for the students in Shatila. They identified the potential of Art to empower people to tell stories and say things that would otherwise be unable to articulate. They felt that they could easily convey their excitement and passion for art to the students. Being a visual subject, it was more forgiving linguistically as neither of them spoke Arabic, and the students spoke limited English, so allowing the art to speak for itself was essential.

Making it Happen

The planning stage of ‘Tales of Art’ took up most of their daily lives for around 6 months.

‘We sought advice from as many relevant people as we could including artists, teachers, NGO workers, and friends and family. We made a structured schedule and planned every single workshop meticulously. We also had to predict our expenditure and plan for how we would raise enough money to sustain the course.’

To fundraise, Kitty organised a London-based charity fundraiser with some friends and used it as an opportunity to raise awareness of the situation in Lebanon and why they were going out there. Together, they built a social media presence and developed this to run whilst they were out in Beirut and maintain a continuous trickle of funding for the project. 

Ben and Kitty both had different skills they they were bringing to the table for this initiative, which helped to grow the idea in a very organic way. Kitty with her solid background in art, had the foundations of building a professional exhibition, developing final pieces, and running a powerful art class. Ben had already spent 1 month of his second-year summer teaching Art History and English for Alsama in the only institute they had at the time in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, subsequently, he completed a TEFL course, so had enhanced his teaching skills.

When they eventually got to Alsama and began delivering the workshops they practiced each class in their apartment first, producing example pieces to show the students. In the classroom, they taught alongside one another, Kitty often taking the lead, having more technical knowledge as an artist, but both would circulate around the class to assist any struggling students.

‘We worked well as a team, fuelled by a strong friendship and a passion for the work Alsama was doing.’

The Alsama curriculum had a strong academic core with a focus on Maths, English, and Arabic and broadened to offer subjects such as IT, science, and chess but Kitty and Ben noticed that the students were pre-disposed to learn by rote with little experience of analysis, taking the initiative or creativity in the classroom.

‘At the start, we struggled to get our classes to think for themselves, or to understand that there could be more than one answer. They wanted to be told the ‘correct’ solution and how to create it’. When they praised one student for an idea they had, they then found other students copying that idea.

‘As the project wore on, students increasingly had individual ideas and relaxed with the concept of giving their opinions’ Not only did they see that their course created a relaxing stress-free space to take students away from the stresses of living in the refugee camp, but we also saw a rise in individuality and creative thinking, clearly demonstrating the value of Kitty and Ben’s course.

Walking through the camp would be a humbling experience. The streets were incredibly narrow and busy with a constant stream of mopeds passing through. Rubbish was built up in all corners and in the entrance to the camp, it was periodically washed elsewhere by heavy rain. The sky was hidden by the close buildings, stacked up like Lego bricks, and by an enormous web of cables that hung precariously overhead.

The Alsama Instititutes at Shatila and Bourj El-Barajneh that we used for lessons had brightly painted walls and busy, happy classrooms, the perfect antidote to the camps, havens for the young people.  Indeed, we were advised not to stray far from the institutes. Although we never felt in danger, hearing gunshots wasn’t uncommon, and sometimes classes were called off due to flooding, funerals (involving processions and celebratory gunfire), or infighting between gangs.

In contrast, Kitty and Ben lived 15 minutes away in central Beirut, an incredibly vibrant city with fantastic art exhibitions, live music events, cafes, and bars. Outside of class, they spent time in markets, looking for materials to bring to the classroom, and exploring some of the best food they’d ever eaten.  

A great finale

The culmination of the ‘Tales of Art’ course was the opportunity for the students to experience what it was like to be an artist. Kitty and Ben designed the exhibition process to be one that allowed each student to find their voice and learn to express themselves as an individual. Each artist could take their idea in any direction they desired; if they wanted to make the painting life-sized, they could. If they wanted to paint onto a piece of wood, no problem. Upon completing the final pieces, Kitty and Ben arranged for the young artists to be interviewed by a professional journalist friend about their artwork.

Lastly, given their proximity to Beirut, it was fitting that the ‘Tales of Art’ exhibition was taken to this amazing city and exhibited in a venue called Zoukak Theatre. Syrian refugees are allowed to leave the camp until they are 18, after that they are at risk of being captured and sent back to Syria by the police. So when they organised a bus filled with their cohort of 40 students to go to the exhibition space in Beirut it was an extremely exciting day filled with music, laughter and a bit of nervousness. Overall it was a fantastic finale to their time with the Alsama Project and one that they hoped would stay with the students for a long time.  

‘Our ‘Tales of Art’ endeavour gave us an incredible sense of achievement, lots of new friends, invaluable experience, and new levels of understanding that came with working alongside a different culture and religion. We also developed a newfound respect for our teachers at Bradfield as well as an enormous appreciation for how lucky we are being born with an abundance of opportunities and support.’ 

After ‘Tales of Art’

Inspired by ‘Tales of Art’, Kitty has become a refugee resettlement and integration worker in South Gloucestershire for Julian House, supporting refugees who are on resettlement schemes, allowing her to learn about the refugee system in the UK and the barriers that people face within our system. In the future, she would like to step back into the field of migration and art. 

Enthused by the work that they had done, especially the positive impact on the students, Ben has continued to work with the Alsama Project on a one-year trial to see whether it was feasible to have art as a permanent feature of the curriculum in all the Alsama Project venues.

If other Bradfieldians are considering following in Kitty and Ben’s footsteps and working for an NGO they would recommend contacting ‘Indigo Volunteers’ as a first port of call.

Alsama Project

 

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