Art Aid for Syrian Children


by Kim Tamalonis

Children at Za’atari Refugee Camp photographed by Jean Bradbury

During the summer of 2015, daily news reports covered mass genocide in Syria and refugees’ perilous journey to escape.  While puzzling indifference or fear of involvement paralyzed official international relief efforts, non-government organizations and good Samaritans furiously scrambled to address refugees’ needs.  My students and I felt compelled to help.

Rye Middle School students embraced the challenge to use art to aid Syrian kids.  Students collected 100 pounds of supplies from their homes.  In class, they made hundreds of pocket-sized sketchbooks. Employees at our local post office gathered funds to transport boxes from Rye to Seattle based non-profit Studio Syria. Studio Syria founder, Jean Bradbury, then brought the art supplies to children at the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan.

My students prepared for a show at the Rye Arts Center, where their art would be sold. We donated proceeds from the November show to the Blossom Hill Foundation‘s programs for Syrian children.  The Blossom Hill Foundation, founded by Shiva Sirram, helps children from many nations who have been victimized by war.

Students in all grades made projects that were based on a simple story. While the story echoed the refugee migration in a child-friendly way, the Rye kids customized plots and characters.

Basic Story:  There was once a thriving planet.  Over time, peace and harmony dissolved.  Young Genius decided it was time to leave.  The brave adventurer retreated into a secret hideaway to plan an exodus. Others, bearing skills that could contribute to a new civilization, joined Young Genius in planning a great migration.  Among the crew was a farmer, a doctor , a wizard and even a geneticist, who packed a suitcase containing cell samples from all the animals in the land.  Together, the crew built a spaceship and blasted into orbit, where they identified a new planet to make their home.  When the spaceship doors opened, the crew was welcomed by new friends, who offered to share their planet, as long as everyone lived in harmony.  A rich new joint culture emerged.  After many years, strengthened by new skills and knowledge, Young Genius and crew returned to save their old planet.  

And everyone lived happily ever after.

Sixth graders envisioned the Genius character’s secret workshop. Their art doubled as a game board. As players navigate the game, they collect materials needed for starting lives in a new land.

The seventh graders created cut-paper collages that illustrated life on the new planet.

Eighth graders envisioned the exodus crew, chosen for their skills by Young Genius.

Kids in all grades created 3D paper animals that represented gene samples that Young Genius and crew would bring to the new world.

All students who wished to have their art professionally printed on gift cards, were asked to raise $20 on their own.  The cards were shuffled, turned into assorted gift boxes, and sold at the Rye Arts Center and at Arcade Book Store.

Passionate students showed up at the Rye Arts Center on the night before the opening, to help hang the exhibit.  During the reception, the same self-motivated kids took responsibility for art sales, refreshments and tours, without being asked to help.  Blossom Hill Foundation trustee Jehanne Anabtawi spoke to Rye families about programs in place to help Syrian child refugees.

Proceeds from the show that Rye Middle School students donated to the Blossom Hill Foundation from the sale of original art and mixed gift card boxes totaled $3100.00

Next Steps:

* Run an art workshop for recent child refugees in the New York metro area. Provide supplies and instruction to the Syrian children, so they can create their versions of the game board project and of the story.

Wish List: Include a trip to the Metropolitan Museum, where a curator could show the Syrian kids examples of Syrian art in the museum’s collection.

* Find a publisher to print a coloring book, including both the Rye Middle School art and the Syrian children’s art, from which profits would aid refugees.

I kept copies of around 100 6th grade game board line drawings. A combination of line drawings and finished art could create a stunning coloring book.

Paula Fung Interviews Rye Students and Art Teacher Kim Tamalonis for Rye TV,      Rye Record Coverage of Rye Arts Center Exhibition,      Editorial for the Greenwich Free Press,      Article in the Blossom Hill Foundation Newsletter



Global Emergency Response for Syria Needed Now!

OP/ED Letter for the Greenwich Free Press

Freedom Print

September 14, 2015

Greenwich Free Press Article

Last weekend, as I swam laps in an idyllic pool, far from problems headlining on the front-page news, I considered lessons that would encourage my middle school art students to extend themselves to children thousands of miles away.  I briefly tried to engage the lifeguard in a discussion, but she hadn’t heard about the Syrian civil war, the country’s mass exodus or the problems facing refugees in Europe. I directed her to pick up her smart phone and go to the New York Times homepage.  When she did, she audibly gasped at the sight of Aylan Kurdi, which prompted her further investigation.

Perhaps sending kids’ art and donated supplies to refugee centers will offer momentary comfort to displaced children.  Maybe this effort I have in mind will seem trivial, but it cannot hurt.  It’s important that my US students think about social responsibility and how they fit in the world.  Hopefully, following class discussions, students will want to do something thoughtful.

In my opinion, helping people exiting Syria should be a responsibility shared by countries around the world.  Furthermore, in the future, countries should establish proactive systems for rallying to each other’s aid.    There should be basic protocol for sheltering and caring for refugees: people who are tired, sick and psychologically distraught.  The Syrians have not fled their homeland to take from others.  They have escaped tyranny, savagery, torture and loss.

Some might question why would we help foreign refugees when we have a homeless population right here in America.  It’s the difference between chronic problems that call for long-term strategic planning versus an emergency situation, which requires immediate action.  To those who understand the difference between the challenges, but who continue to shun the immediate foreign need for aid, imagine that your mother or father was locked in the abandoned truck in Austria in which 71 refugees died.  Imagine discovering that your child washed up on a beach in Turkey, after your family desperately tried to escape tyranny.  Imagine a situation in which you finally escaped political horrors in one location, but hatred for refugees and for people of your faith in all the surrounding locations made you incapable of finding a place to sleep.

I am a humanitarian before I am an American.  At this critical juncture, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Christians, Agnostics, Chinese, Swedish, Americans and Austrians need to rally together to save lives.  Middle school students can offer their version of hope to refugee children, while NGO’s, philanthropists and governments have different resources to share.   For the duration of this emergency, world citizens need to see beyond local needs and extend all hands to the Syrian refugees.

Kim Tamalonis