Art Expands Hearts

The Iraqi children’s art exchange

When longtime early childhood educator—and peace activist—Claudia Lefko signed on to travel to Baghdad at the tail end of 2000 with Ramsey Clark and others as part of a delegation bringing medicine and humanitarian aid, she faced an interesting dilemma. “The trip was scheduled for late December and early January,” Lefko explains, “meaning I’d miss some school. So, I was trying to figure out how to relate my trip to the children, a story to tell them about what I was doing in a way that would make it meaningful to them.”

Then, she says, “I had one of those ‘in the shower’ ideas: invite children from the United States to create pictures we could bring with us. I wondered what might a child here want to share with someone so far away?”

 So began the Iraqi Children’s Art Exchange. The response amazed her. Lefko, who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, received over 400 pieces of art. “I’d come home and find pictures clipped to my mailbox,” she recalls. “It was a time when we were being told there was nothing we could do in that part of the world. People were moved by the idea of doing something.”

The sanctions in place then limited what the delegation was permitted to bring to Baghdad. Lefko brought about $400.00 of art supplies. She and fellow member of the peace group Northampton Committee to Lift Sanctions, Kathleen Winkworth, joined the larger delegation together.

In Baghdad, the delegation stayed at the Al Rashid hotel. She recalls, “Saddam was in charge and we had government ‘minders.’ Our minder phoned around looking for a place that would receive our gifts. He chose a hospital and had the driver take us there. The hospital wouldn’t talk to us, because we were women. They agreed to speak to our male driver. He tried, but he wasn’t, he reported, an important enough man for them to take seriously; they needed a more powerful man. Our minder then sent us to a second hospital and this time, the doctors listened to the driver and agreed to speak to us. These doctors saw our offering as a good thing for the children on their ward. They were welcoming of the children’s artwork and art supplies.”

Although the Al-Manour Pediatric Hospital had an activity room for the patients, this room had been closed, due to lack of funding. Lefko says that she and her friend, Winkworth, “broke away from the delegation,” in order to return daily to the hospital, where they gave children artwork and art supplies, inviting the children there to make pictures for them to bring back to the American children. Lefko photographed the children making artwork.

In 2000, the closed activity room wasn’t the only sign of stress upon the system. Lefko says that doctors at this hospital worked tirelessly without anything approaching adequate support. “They cared so about the children,” she remarks, of the two doctors they worked with most closely. “And they cared not at all about politics. They cared that we were reaching out and helping the children they loved and that other children—far away—cared. One doctor held up a picture by a boy named Sam and told the children on the ward, ‘Sam could be President someday.’ The implication being that Sam already cared about them.”

The children loved the visits and loved drawing. “We didn’t do elaborate projects,” Lefko says. They were delighted to receive art from other children: “You could see by how they looked at these gifts that they treasured the art and the well-wishes.”
Returning to the United States with artwork by the 40 kids they’d met in the Baghdad hospital, Lefko set to work sharing the art—and the stories. She says, “A school in Southwick, which is a pretty remote little town, not only put up an exhibition but had me for an assembly to tell them about the trip. The kids and teachers wanted to create more work, for a second round. While they’d just made the work first time around, this time they were told the School Committee had to approve. The spirit of the project, what people connected with wasn’t politics; it was children reaching out to one another.” Lefko says, “We put the work out wherever we could: we mounted an exhibit at the Northampton Center for the Arts. We did a mural project. We persevered.”

Lefko returned to Baghdad in 2004, with more artwork and more art supplies for the hospital. She says, “Rather than think of Americans as enemies, these doctors held out hope.” Soon after the war ended, violence erupted and the kidnappings of humanitarian workers began and the NGO’s left. For years, getting into Baghdad wasn’t so doable. Lefko went to Jordan, where many Iraqi people live in exile. She didn’t stop thinking about the children and the adults at Al-Mansour Pediatric Hospital. Through her connections in Jordan, Lefko has helped raise funds to send a colleague back to the hospital. Lefko says, “This woman was spending each day visiting children and bringing them art supplies.” The goal shared by Lefko and others is to reopen the hospital’s long-dormant activity room. She adds, “One thing I so admire is that these doctors care far less about politics than their patients.”

While the doctors do not consider themselves heroes or want the story of Al-Mansour to focus upon them, Lefko says she cannot help but comment upon their steadfast dedication: “These doctors—Salma Haddad and Ali Abbas—have been on the ward since 1990. Reports are that one-third of doctors in Iraq have been killed or left the country. These two doctors remain on the ward, which is more crowded now, and if possible, even less adequately resourced.” She continues, “Cancer rates and childhood leukemia rates have risen dramatically. This is undocumented, because there really isn’t a system in place for documentation—or even much communication between hospitals. There’s not a network, so the findings are qualitative at best, not quantitative. The system is in shambles. One of the doctors—Dr. Salma, they go by first name, got breast cancer and her colleague treated her—on the pediatric ward.” Lefko adds, “Dr. Salma (Haddad) told me ‘I won’t leave. I am a doctor. These are my patients.’”

Lefko is planning to return to Baghdad this year. She hopes to have raised adequate monies to reopen the activity room on the unit. She says, “We imagine that $5000.00 a year could sustain the program, both supplies and staffing.”

While she was initially focused upon the hospitalized children and the American children creating art for the exchange, over the years, Lefko’s thinking has evolved. “Beyond work about trauma there is a lot of thoughtful work going on about the idea of resilience,” she says. “You begin to consider what it takes to help someone integrate such suffering as living in a war zone—and move onward. Healing isn’t exactly the paradigm.”

Beyond the art exchange, Lefko increasingly considers how the impact of living in a war zone affects the adults there. She says, “To care for the children, you have to care for their families, their parents, and their caretakers. There really is a community of people on the hospital unit all requiring support.”

The art serves not only as a bridge between cultures and a delivery system for hope and compassion, making art for the ill children on pediatric unit at Al-Mansour allows them something to do. Childhood, as we think of it with school life and home life and playing outdoors, does not occur for these children. Lefko says, “Maybe there’s not really ‘normalcy’ for these kids to strive for, or not as we think of it. Just having an activity, having a little escape, that’s important, and it’s therapeutic, too.”

In Jordan, Lefko was able to partner up with Save the Children. She is working on other partnerships and collaborations in order to better secure the project’s stability.

As she contemplates returning to Baghdad, given how much suffering Iraqis have suffered due to the war, Lefko finds herself wondering, “Where do we start?” She continues, “The thing is, people at the hospital are so grateful that people care about them. Strip away politics and war. People want to connect.”

She says her local community—from a Brownie troop to the students and teachers at the Southwick school—has been incredibly kind and generous and caring. “This is loving the enemy,” she says. “I know that if you don’t stand in the way, compassion really is what you’ll find.”

Check out Sarah Buttenwieser’s blog, Standing in the Shadows.



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