Amman – After a busy art session, the classroom at Amman’s al-Hussain Social Institution buzzed with energy, as children dashed around to clean up supplies, admire their paintings and pose in the decorated masks they designed.
These young artists have come a long way over the past few months. Aged between six and 12, the children recently completed an art therapy programme – the first of its kind – designed to aid Jordan’s orphans. The weekly sessions of painting, gluing and building provided an atmosphere of organised chaos, during which they filled canvases with the anxieties and hopes that might otherwise be difficult to express.
“It’s like regular therapy, except you use art as a medium,” art therapist and programme founder Shireen Yaish told Al Jazeera. “It’s great for those who find it difficult to verbalise things – it’s about making the unconscious conscious, in a way. My job is to make people understand what they’re making.”
As the weeks progressed, the children participating in this programme run by the Kaynouna Art Therapy Centre came out of their shells and developed great enthusiasm for their artwork, Yaish said. Supported by the al-Aman Fund for the Future of Orphans and the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation, the programme also exposed the profound needs of some of Jordan’s most vulnerable children.
The paintings make their struggles visible. In the final session, Azd* created a striking blue-and-yellow scene in which a girl leaves a house while a boy looks on in fright. The figure is his sister, Salma, who has just turned 12 and is set to leave the Hussain institution – a move that will separate the siblings, who have long relied on only each other.
The pair moved to the home after their mother fled from their abusive father and remarried, and they are already separated from their seven other siblings. Being split up again would be devastating, they said.
“[The children in my classes] don’t have parents that will teach them love and continuity; they don’t have siblings to offer support,” Yaish said, noting that low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and feelings of neglect and abandonment are among the psychological consequences. While art is an outlet to help to deal with such feelings, it is not enough: “It’s not just making them feel better. Something needs to be done.”
Ibrahim al-Ahmad, general manager of the Aman fund, said that the government had made significant investments in children’s homes in recent years, noting that the state of support was improving. There are currently 18 children’s homes in Jordan, overseen by the state but run by both government and private institutions.
“One of the big problems … is that children are moved regularly, according to their age,” Ahmad said. “There’s a lack of stability, and it’s confusing for the children when the replacement mother gets changed four or five times.”
The long-term challenges of Jordan’s orphanage system are also addressed during the art therapy sessions. While the children paint, the women who care for them as foster mothers participate in similar classes.
At the Hussain institution, these women are charged with caring for up to 10 children at a time, 24 hours a day. Lamia*, who has worked at the centre for three years, is honest about the toll. She expects to continue to work at the centre for years to come, but remains frustrated at what she calls a lack of training and support that the foster mothers receive.
“It’s so difficult when you become attached to the kids, then they leave,” Lamia explained. “So we don’t want to be attached, but we want to give all that we can give. We’re with them 24 hours, and it’s really stressful.”
During the final class of the art therapy programme, Lamia showed off the works that she created over the course of several months, inspired by the theme “selfie”. In her first painting, two clumsy flowers are topped with a black sky. In the second, the scene is green and blue, with trees, flowers, a human figure and a house. “It has more life and hope,” Yaish said.
In another session, a group of girls between the ages of 18 and 23 created art around the same theme. Having grown up in care homes, they have produced work that reflects the challenges that have shaped their lives.
In one piece, canvas stick figures are surrounded by words signifying stress and anxiety; another shows a spiral, unravelling through changing colours. “I wanted to show my life changing,” Maha* explained. “It’s kind of upside down, though – because when you want to do something, it always goes wrong.”
When these young women presented their work to the class, some spoke about being bullied while growing up in an orphanage, or of struggling to find work, or about feelings of abandonment. In a society as family-centric as Jordan, surviving without the support of a conventional home is tough.
“Just to be an orphan living in an orphans’ centre is a challenge,” Ahmad said. On leaving, he noted, orphans still face problems such as prejudice in applying for jobs or renting apartments, and struggling to get ahead without the boost of family links. “It’s cultural. In Jordan, family is the most important thing.”
Participants in the art therapy programme, meanwhile, remain cautiously optimistic about their uncertain futures.
“I see what these children are going through, and I see the youth, and I see what happens. What we’re doing is helping the children, youth and mothers to grow up and become healthier adults,” Yaish said.
Speaking to Maha as the young woman presented her painting, Yaish said: “Your past has affected you in a way that makes you feel like you don’t want to change your future. And the past is going to affect us today and tomorrow, too. But where’s it going to end? Whatever you’re going to do, it’s only going to come from you.”
*Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the women and children involved.