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



Pranks, Bands and Blasting Bubbles (chapter 1)

Pranks, Bands and boiling bubbles

click here for the complete novel

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Have you ever witnessed wild middle school boys in action?  If so, than “bubbles” will make sense.  I attended a girls’ school, where I then taught for ten years.  When I finally broke away to teach public middle school art, perpetually moving 11, 12, and 13 year old boys came as a shock.  Their explosive mix of hormones and energy triggered daily art room madness.  As a survival strategy, I imagined that colorful bubbles, percolating within the zaniest kids, made them bounce and shake.  My new use for the word “bubbles” quickly took hold among students.  

Narrated by Sam, a mischievous middle school boy, “Pranks, Bands, and Bubbles,” tells the coming-of-age story of a group of rowdy friends who evolve from unintentional criminals into superstars.  At first, the adventure-seekers find themselves in life-threatening situations, but when old Mr. Swanson, owner of the shuttered and for-sale local amusement park, catches the kids scaling the Funworld gate, he offers a life-changing deal.  Mr. Swanson agrees to sell his Funworld fleet of Segway scooters at half the estimated value, if the kids raise all funds without help from parents.  Under an inflexible deadline, Sam and friends funnel wild energy into entrepreneurial endeavors.  Unable to work fast enough, they start a garage band, hoping to win the Rock Band Rumble $3000 grand prize.  The kids support each other and they learn to look outward, while addressing a series of challenges that threaten to derail their focus.   


By Kim Tamalonis



As soon as the first bell rang and my 7th grade math class let out, I’d run to the art room before Miss Posey dismissed her eighth graders.  I’d push open the door and yell, “Hi Miss Posey! Hi Miss Posey! Hi Miss Posey,” five or six times consecutively and then duck as kids threw paper balls, glue bottles and sometimes scissors in my direction.  The door would then slam in my face, leaving me alone in the hallway, curiously listening to the eighth graders’ noises escalating, fading, and sometimes exploding into uncontrolled eruptions of laughter. At exactly 9:24am the second warning bell would ring, the entryway would burst open and a mass of electrified boys and a rowdy girl or two would tumble out, pushing, yelling and unconsciously releasing strange sprays of bubbles. Much calmer girls and a few significantly less manic boys would then emerge, rolling their eyes.


After a long exhale, our ponytailed teacher would wash her hands, adjust her smock and finally welcome my classmates and me to art, just as the third bell sounded. Other than a garbage can stuffed with paper airplanes and an occasional pencil or wad of fresh wet clay oddly plopping down from the waffled ceiling, there were no other signs of unusual activity in room 169.   


“Posey, that’s the ‘special class?’” I sarcastically asked, one day.


“Miss Posey,” she corrected. “They have bubbles.”


When I asked for an explanation, Miss Posey advised me to ask the nurse.


I wondered if bubbles were contagious or if there were kids I should avoid. I brought the matter up to my friends at lunch. They didn’t know any more than I did, but they said the phenomenon wasn’t isolated to second period art. They had seen trails of bubbles left by kids whizzing through the hallways. Zac saw a teacher eject a bubbling kid from a science lab by the ear. Charlie saw a bubbling dude getting yelled at in the principal’s office. As we chewed on the issue, a muscle-y older kid with the start of a fuzz-stache dropped a flier on our table announcing try-outs for the Shoreline Middle School football team. Before we could ask questions, he moved on to the next table. I suggested to my friends that we try-out. Oliver was already committed to baseball. As usual, Lug avoided explaining the mysterious conflict that always prevented him from hanging out after school. Zac agreed to join me and Charlie attempted to chicken out.


“Dude, no chance! Have you seen the size of the guys on the team? If we make it, we’ll be annihilated by the end of the first week.” Charlie envisioned. “Besides which, football is on my parents’ banned list.”


“No offence, Charlie, but you won’t make it.   Even if you are picked, of course you’ll back out, but aren’t you even curious to see if you have what it takes to make the team?” I prodded.


Rules established by his exceptionally strict parents had determined almost all of my friend Charlie’s actions, since birth.  Charlie’s dad, Judge Roland Thompson, was super cautious about the safety of his African American family.  He and his wife, Ms. Nyah Thompson, a successful Wall Street financial advisor, bought a house in the suburbs when they became parents.  Ms. Thompson worked long hours in the city. Judge Thompson had given up his high power Manhattan job and taken a position as a county family court judge, in order to raise Charlie.


Zac and I celebrated whenever Charlie let his deeply buried inner rebel loose. We didn’t completely understand why Charlie’s parents were so protective of him and we were determined to bring him to our wild side. Even though football was on the Thompson family list of banned sports, I convinced Charlie that the harmless exercise of trying out for the team would be a valuable life experience.


By Friday afternoon, Zac, Charlie and I were outside on the bleachers with the biggest guys in our class, waiting for seventh graders to be called to the field. The biggest guys seemed gargantuan in football padding. Ominous rumblings of thunder in the overcast sky should have been the sign for us to go home, but coach made no move to cancel try-outs. While we watched the eighth grade team practice, the bubble mystery grew deeper. Bubbles quietly streamed from athletes like steam from small sports cars. Inside school, the same kids seemed crazy, yet on the field, the group maintained unflinching focus as they ran, jumped and tackled. Bubbles flew away from them like used energy. As the seventh grade tryout started with drills, the sky opened up. Other guys added excited grunts to their efforts, but as the drills progressed, my wet gear felt like it weighed 5,000 pounds. I ran slower and slower, wondering why I had subjected myself to torture. Just as I dropped out, something caused several of the guys to run into each other and land in one gigantic heap. Charlie had tripped on untied laces and now laid face down in the mud under five others. During concluding exercises, as Zac ran backwards to receive the ball, he accidentally fell into the brook. The big guys laughed, which made Zac laugh, too. Coach screamed at Zac that there was no room on the team for pranksters. It came as no surprise that my friends and I did not make the team.



The Monday before Winter Break was the day Miss Posey said she would announce whether or not we’d make complicated two-color prints. She said she worried about kids’ behavior around the messiest supplies, when everyone was bouncing off walls and counting down minutes to vacation. But sometimes, worthy challenges at high-energy moments kept classes focused. Miss Posey held off her announcement until quiet drawing time was over.   During the seemingly endless wait, I felt my stomach turn and wondered if I was sick or if I had developed an allergy to the eggs I had consumed for breakfast. While everyone calmly focused on sketchbook drawings, something worrisome caught my eye. Bubbles emerged from the ears of the boy sitting next to me.   I looked up at Miss Posey, who saw them too. She wrote on a small scrap of paper and passed a puzzling message to me, which read,


“Sometimes they start early.”


Nausea gripped me. I bolted to the bathroom to yack. Then, I looked in my ears: no bubbles. I stuck out my tongue and looked down my throat: no bubbles. Finally, I sat on the porcelain throne until nausea subsided. When I returned to class, bubbles blasted from the nose of a different boy, making him fall backwards off his stool. He clasped his hands over his face. Now there were two. By this time, the whole class noticed. Everyone stared at the boys, unnerved by their mysterious ailment. However, the mood brightened when my friend Oliver started chanting,


“Bubbles, bubbles, bubbles!”


The afflicted boys played into the attention, as most of the class joined the chorus. Soon, the uncontrollable chanting broke into class-wide hysterical laughter. When the room settled down and things returned to normal, an annoyed girl who was unfazed by bubbles demanded,


“Miss Posey, will we be doing the two-color printing?”


Miss Posey paused to consider the question before announcing her decision.


“Yes, let’s do it.  I don’t want you using ink after you’re all attacked by bubbles.”


Just then, Oliver’s eyes bulged, he pursed his lips together, as his cheeks inflated.  He seemed to stop breathing, he turned bright red, and as he opened his mouth to gasp for air, bubbles jet streamed out.  Most of the class cheered, but mostly just to make noise. Miss Posey’s foreboding prediction and three kids down overshadowed the fun.  That night, tossing back and forth, unable to forget the weird orbs spurting uncontrollably from my classmates, I panicked over what was in store.

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