By Casey Crow
Special to The SUN
In only three weeks, a team from locally based nonprofit Beyond Words International (BWI) departs for Greece to work with Syrian refugee children.
BWI aims to bring healing to survivors of trauma through the arts in the U.S. and abroad. BWI believes that the arts are a universal language and a powerful vehicle for hope, healing and connection.
Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, nearly 11 million people have been displaced within Syria and neighboring nations, making it the largest humanitarian crisis of our time. More than half of all those affected are children. While many organizations provide lifesaving care to those who have been displaced, there continues to be a frightening lack of mental health services. The gap in psychosocial support has led to increasing reports of anxiety and depression, PTSD and attempted suicide in refugee camps in Greece. The trauma seen in refugees is so severe that experts are now calling it “Human Devastation Syndrome.”
BWI hopes to fill this gap by providing arts-based outlets to relieve stress, provide a safe space for expression and bring healing to children who have experienced unbelievable suffering. The arts are proven to transcend language and cultural barriers. Art transforms anxiety, depression, fear and anger into positive expression, heightened self-esteem and self-empowerment.
In 2016, BWI President Casey Crow piloted a dance therapy project in a refugee camp in Greece. It showed immense promise, inspiring her to pursue the founding of BWI.
“The children, especially young girls, embraced it with incredible enthusiasm,” she explained. “They would hike to my door every day and beg me to teach dance in the one-room schoolhouse. Girls who showed me photos of their houses decimated by barrel bombs and relatives killed in the conflict would join me in the evening, turn off the lights and, without any words, dance their stories across the floor. It felt like a collective deep breath. A release. A brief moment in which they could forget all the things children should never have to see.”
The BWI team includes a group of individuals qualified in the arts, teaching, psychology, social work, film and more. Among the BWI team is abstract artist Paula Jo Miller, dancer and activist Casey Crow, clinical psychologist Mary Jen Meerdink, therapist and Berkeley Ph.D. student Kelly Ziemer, local filmmaker Leslie Santee, and Pagosa graduate Addie Thompson, who studies human rights and art at Colby College. Each member of the team brings their unique passion and skills to the project, ensuring that programming is well rounded and firmly established in art and therapy techniques.
According to Meerdink, “Over the decades that I have worked in the arena of personal growth, I have found that a key element in the process of moving beyond trauma and loss and into healing is having the safe space and support to tell one’s deep and personal story. Often, such crucial storytelling defies words and, rather, can best be facilitated through nonverbal means. The mission of BWI, to offer these expressive pathways to empowerment, aligns deeply with my belief in the power of art, movement and creative experience to transmute trauma and challenge into empowerment and dignity.”
The BWI team will partner with Happy Caravan, a nonprofit already working on the ground in Greece. Happy Caravan was founded by a Syrian refugee who knows firsthand the challenges displaced children face on a daily basis. Happy Caravan works to provide education, English instruction and opportunities for creativity to refugee children in two locations within Greece. BWI chose to partner with this organization for several key reasons.
First, BWI believes in the importance of supporting efforts that originate within the community and listening to local actors who know the context, culture and needs of the children BWI aims to serve. Second, it is important to integrate programs within a structure that is already involved long-term in the community, ensuring sustainability, rather than implementing new projects without any prior relationship to the community or knowledge of programs that have previously succeeded or failed. Third, while the BWI team is only able to work in Greece for six weeks, Happy Caravan will remain on the ground for the foreseeable future. Beyond Words has offered to provide therapy and training to Happy Caravan staff in an effort to support their team as they serve refugee children long term. Both teams will work in tandem to craft the most effective, sustainable and culturally appropriate curriculum to be employed over the six-week project term.
The BWI team is seeking $3,400 to cover travel expenses and art supplies for their project. If you would like to support them, you can donate through Paypal Giving to Beyond Words Intl or send a check to P.O. Box 291, Pagosa Springs, CO 81147.
For more information on the organization and program goals, visit bwintl.org.