Thursday, December 19, 2013

Finding a Sense of Belonging

The welcome song on December 1st was extra special. Why? Two children, sisters, newly arrived from Nepal just a week prior, joined the Bhutanese refugee children’s art group. The regular attending children were on their best behavior, sitting taller than normal, singing louder and glancing at the sisters to see if they were enjoying themselves. The words of the welcome song – "Hello, Hello, so happy to see you; Hello, Hello, how do you do? Hello, hello, my name is.." – took on new meaning this time. One of the children took on the responsibility of translating for the new girls. The others did their part in acclimating the sisters to the rituals, rules and values of the group. The children danced, sang and they made mud sculptures of their choice illustrating the continuing metaphor of constant change and growth in life. This metaphor started with the lesson of the life cycle and migration of Monarch butterflies to Mexico (see previous post 'Skulls made of Sugar')

At the end of group, the sisters hung around, showing the artists Nepali music videos, sharing their interests and culture. One of the sisters continued to draw long after the group had ended while the other sister exchanged handmade bracelets with another child. They asked for paper to take home so they could continue drawing in preparation for the next group.

The BuildaBridge Classroom model helped the regularly attending children welcome and acclimate these newly arrived sisters from Nepal. The boundaries, structure and rituals create a community that these sisters are now a part of, helping them find a sense of belonging here in a new place.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Flight of the Monarchs

During their most recent group, Bhutanese children reviewed what they learned about monarch butterflies migrating from the U.S. to Mexico in late October.  Children worked in pairs to choreograph their interpretation of what the life cycle  of a butterfly and it's migration looks like.  Each pair performed their dance for the group using fabric to mimic wings and capes.  As children performed, the artists pointed out the scientific terms like transformation, caterpillar, cocoon and chrysalis in order to strengthen the group's vocabulary and academic skills.  The group then transitioned into their visual arts activity of creating mud sculptures.  The week prior, children created leaf drawings.  Christine, the visual art therapist, described how mud sculptures when they are dry are slightly more permanent than the leaf drawings, but also will not last forever.  Using these art activities as a metaphor, children were able to reflect on the things in their own lives that were permanent and impermanent.  Christine, Mr. Robert and Julia have consistently incorporated both movement and visual arts into all of the groups because the children respond so well to both. There are attributes and specific values to each art medium, all of which play an important role in helping children externalize the internal without the use of words as they continue to acclimate into U.S. culture.

Two newly arrived refugee children joined this group totaling 11 children in attendance on December 1st. The group taught them the songs, dances and rituals of the BuildaBridge Classroom, welcoming them into the space as if they had been there all along.  A celebration of this first term will occur December 15th and groups will re-start in mid-January.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Skulls made of Sugar

Mr. Robert Kelleher and Ms. Christine Byma crafted a lesson for the most recent Bhutanese refugee children's group about the Day of the Dead.  The lesson started with a discussion about monarch butterflies and their migration to Mexico at the start of November.  Children discussed what it means to migrate, as most of them have experienced this or heard the stories of their parents' migration. The monarch butterflies often arrive at the time of Mexico's Day of the Dead celebration November 2nd.  Some believe these butterflies carry the souls of those who have passed on and have come back to visit.  In celebration and in honor of the ancestors, families create skulls made of sugar and flowers as symbols of death and the afterlife to place on alters.  Bhutanese children created skulls made of model magic, feathers and colored pens to symbolize their celebrations of ancestors who have passed.  In future groups, the artists will dive deeper into conversations with children about their past, their ancestors and what they've learned from them to apply to their own lives.  

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Project Updates

Forty-nine - the number of participants served by BuildaBridge during the 10-week Philadelphia Partnership for Resilience (PPR) groups this past summer.
Twenty - the number of participants who attended at least two groups or more
Seven - the number of participants who attended at least four groups or more
Six - the number of artist personnel who led groups for the participants

Considering that these groups were a pilot, having never been done before and conducted to gauge interest among participants, these attendance statistics shed light on the need for the groups and the interest to continue.  Participants noted that the groups assisted them in building community among one another, particularly sharing similar experiences even though they came from different parts of the world.  Artists noted many participants became more expressive, creative and were more willing to open up because it was a safe space and in addition, art-making naturally allows one to externalize the internal without the use of words.  BuildaBridge will continue to collaborate with Nationalities Services Center and the PPR to offer the art therapy and therapeutic art-making groups in the community mental health context to survivors of torture until October 2014.

With regard to the PRMHC, the Bhutanese group started their Fall 2013 term on October 20 with some returning children from last term and will continue until mid-December.  The Burmese group will re-start in April 2014.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Art of the Journey

BuildaBridge recently completed the first of two 10-week terms with the Burmese population in South Philadelphia.  Art Therapist Natalie Hoffmann led a team of artists including Jessica LaBarca and Liz Green in using geography as a focus for the art activities this term.  Children explored their the journeys they took from East Asia to Philadelphia through a number of art activities in addition to pieces solely focused on where they live now.
Cut-out maps of Pennsylvania served as the foundation for collages, helping children understand the state in which they live and where Philadelphia is located on the map.  

 Maps of East Asia served as the starting point for children to draw how they got to Philadelphia and what that journey looked like to them. 

To conclude the first 10 weeks and celebrate the successes, BuildaBridge staff held a celebration on October 3rd with snacks, songs and a time of sharing.  Burmese groups will re-start in April when it is lighter out longer in order for families to feel safe walking to and from the group location.
View more photos of the celebration.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Learning from one another

BuildaBridge artists from L to R:  Jessica LaBarca, Christine Byma, Robert Kelleher, Julia Crawford & Rebecca Asch

The participants in the adult group are learning from one another on many levels as are the staff of BuildaBridge and those from Nationalities Services Center (NSC). 

Participants in the adult group, led by Jessica LaBarca and Rebecca Asch, are learning:
  • How to communicate non-verbally since English is not a shared language
  • Each piece of art may not resonate with every participant the same
  • Similar or shared experiences can be good to process together but listening to vastly different experiences from others also holds much value
  • Art-making is a vehicle for them to process their past, express themselves and find hope for their future
As part of NSC's Philadelphia Partnership for Resilience (PPR), BuildaBridge art therapists and artists provide art therapy and therapeutic art-making groups in the community context for survivors of torture.   One group is for adults only and the other is for families with children.  BuildaBridge is an expert in providing art-making experiences for traumatized populations and NSC is an expert in refugee resettlement and case management services.  Together, we are learning how to coordinate our efforts to provide alternative and effective mental health services for sensitive refugee and immigrant populations.  Lessons from these groups will contribute to a possible collaboration with NSC's PPR for the rest of the year and add to the Philadelphia Refugee Mental Health Collaborative's work with all Philadelphia refugees. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

PRMHC Year 2 Report

BuildaBridge completed Year 2 activities of the Philadelphia Refugee Mental Health Collaborative on June 30th, 2013.  With continued funding from the Department of Behavioral Health and new funding from the Sheila Fortune Foundation and Union Benevolent Association, BuildaBridge has already started to plan and conduct Year 3 activities.  Burmese groups will start August 22nd and run for 10 weeks until October 3, taking a small break and re-starting in April 2014. 

Link to the Year 2 Report.

Friday, July 19, 2013

New project starting this week

BuildaBridge has entered into a contracted partnership with Nationalities Services Center (NSC) to provide art therapy and therapeutic art-making groups in the community context for survivors of torture (SOT).   These groups are a part of the larger Philadelphia Partnership for Resilience (PPR)  -- a collaboration between NSC, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of Pennsylvania (HIAS) and Lutheran Children and Family Services (LCFS).   PPR provides comprehensive services to immigrant, aslyee, asylum seeker and refugee survivors of torture.   PPR services are tailored to the specific needs of the individual, and can include intensive case management, clinical mental health services, community mental health services, medical care, and legal assistance.   BuildaBridge’s participation is categorized under community mental health services and focuses on two specific groups:  childless adults and parents with children.   Through art-making, BuildaBridge artists will assist adults work through their own histories and how to work with others.  The parents with children group will focus on art-making activities that teach parents how to engage with their children, empowering them to model these activities and life lessons in the home environment.  Groups start July 21st and will continue for 10 weeks until September 29th. 

For more information on PPR visit NSC's website.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Seventy-three Refugees Served during Year 2

BuildaBridge's Refugee Project is pleased to make the following announcements:

During Year 2 (September 2012 to June 2013), BuildaBridge artists served 73 refugees through a total of 32 art therapy groups.  Burmese children were offered a total of 11 groups; Bhutanese children had 18 groups plus an additional 2 family art-making workshops which included their parents and siblings.

The Sheila Fortune Foundation, based in Boulder, CO, has granted BuildaBridge $3,000 to continue work with these populations during Year 3 of the Philadelphia Refugee Mental Health Collaborative.

The Union Benevolent Association granted BuildaBridge $1,500 to also continue work with the Bhutanese and Burmese populations for a third year.

In the Spring of 2014, BuildaBridge anticipates a third art therapy group engaging an entirely new population of refugees. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

World Refugee Day - June 20

"There are now more than 45 million refugees and internally displaced people the highest level in nearly 20 years. Figures give only a glimpse of this enormous human tragedy. Every day, conflict tears apart the lives of thousands of families. They may be forced to leave loved ones behind or become separated in the chaos of war."  - Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General

Today is World Refugee Day and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has themed this year's day 'Family'.  Families were the focus of BuildaBridge's last three groups in South Philadelpiha this month.  Having worked with on average fifteen Bhutanese children twice per month since September, we wanted to conclude Year 2 with celebrations including their families. 

The three groups, June 10, 17 & 24, all included a time of family collaborative art-making, a Nepalese dinner prepared by Bhutanese mothers, and dances that the children practiced before the group started.  Each of these activities accomplished the goals set forth for the family groups: 1) Engaged the entire family unit in art-making experiences, 2) Offered the families opportunities for personal and familial growth using BuildaBridge’s art as a metaphor for life lessons and 3) Built cohesiveness among families and between families and BuildaBridge artists. Photos and videos of the groups are coming soon.  Photos of the Bhutanese children's celebration on Sunday June 16th can be viewed in the Photo Album.

A final report of BuildaBridge's role within the Philadelphia Refugee Mental Health Collaborative will be available in late July. 

Read the full UNHCR article on World Refugee Day here.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Burmese Art Therapy group Re-Starts

Jessica LaBarca leads children in the storybook making activity

The Burmese art therapy groups re-started April 25th after a winter break when it was dark out at night.  Children often travel to the groups with other children as they live in the neighborhood.  Parents were fearful of children walking in the dark so BuildaBridge postponed the group until it was lighter out longer. 

Art therapists Natalie Hoffmann, Jessica LaBarca and assistant Stevie French will lead children  in activities this Spring that focus on their personal identity and identity as a Burmese community.  Currently children are creating storybooks that use both text and visual images to illustrate a story from their lives.  Books will be shared with one another to create opportunities for sharing similar experiences and generate cohesiveness among the children. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Video: The Philadelphia Refugee Mental Health Collaborative and BuildaBridge

BuildaBridge from Dave Barbaree on Vimeo. A collaboration between The Philadelphia Refugee Mental Health Collaborative and BuildaBridge. Produced by Dave Barbaree.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sea creatures

Children commenting on their model magic sea creatures

Moving like snakes
The past two Bhutanese art therapy groups focused on the movements of a river and the creatures that reside in water.  This is part of a 4-5 group series in which the theme of a river is used to teach children academic skills about geography and more importantly, metaphors for how a river is like life.  In both sessions, children used a scarf to illustrate various movements a river can make:  steady, slow, fast, bumpy and curvy.  Children then mimicked the river’s speed with movements of their own, using all parts of their body, arms, head, legs and entire body movements.  In the prior session, children used model magic to create sea creatures for their river mural.  In the most recent session, children illustrated how their sea creature moved, exploring movements of a slithering snake, swimming fish, hopping like frogs and a crab walk.  Nine children attended the most recent group on April 21st including a brand new student who had never attended before. 

Click the picture to see the entire Photo Album

Friday, April 19, 2013

Four Key ingredients to building resiliency in refugee children

Safe Spaces and Structured boundaries

Spaces for children need to protect them from physical and emotional harm and help them feel safe. Physically safe spaces are spaces that are clean, free of sharp objects and dangerous things. They have room for children to move and play. To keep children physically safe, adults need to set rules of proper behavior and be constantly aware of what is going on in the environment. Physically safe spaces also meet children’s basic needs. Children also need emotionally safe spaces that are child-friendly. Child friendly spaces provide children with a sense of safety, structure, continuity, and support amidst often overwhelming circumstances." These are spaces where children feel free to express their thoughts and ideas without fear of ridicule. Safe spaces for children should uphold peace and gender equity and accept differences of class, caste, and religion. Refugee children often come from refugee camps where life is chaotic, unstable, often unsafe and most dwelling and public places are shared. Creating a safe, nurturing and welcoming environment encourages healthy and holistic child development while the art-making experiences promote emotional, intellectual, physical, social, creative, and spiritual growth.

Children repeat the BuildaBrdge Classroom Model & Rules each group as a ritual
What is ritual? A ritual is a series of ceremonial actions that are performed to help transition, heal, believe, and celebrate. Every activity for children should be a ritual with the same structure every day. Rituals are important to helping children feel safe and feel like they belong. Rituals help create emotionally safe, child-friendly spaces. They decrease anxiety and engage the brain and emotions. Rituals help children get ready to learn and make them feel like they are a part of a community. Rituals can also teach history, tradition, and values. Rituals are healing too. For example, singing the same song every morning can be comforting for children because it gives them a sense that life is predictable and that they are a part of a special community.

Originating from chaotic lifestyles like refugee camps or having fled from oppression, refugee children often find their circumstances change daily. They may brush their teeth one day at home and the next have to brush their teeth in a bucket full of shared water with 10 other refugee children in a camp. Their household chores or after school activities could change from one day to the next as their parents frantically try to find stability in a new community. BuildaBridge counters the chaos with rituals and activities that are repeated each group in order assist children in finding personal stability mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally.

Four activities are repeated each group as part of the BuildaBridge Classroom Model: 1) Cross the threshold into the space, 2) Opening ritual dance, 3) Welcome song and 4) Stating the Motto & Rules. The other type of repetitive activities involves activities that are driven by the goals set by the therapists. For example, for four weeks, the therapists may ask the children to do the same movement activity in order to allow children to develop specific skill sets associated with each activity and learn key life lessons. They may also use repeated activities to build up a lesson, first asking children to differentiate between warm and cool colors and the next group, asking them to not only differentiate them but to associate them with feeling words like sad, happy, angry or content. These activities help children define the space and time for the group while also providing familiarity and routine. Children can attend each group confident that the space they are entering is safe, controlled, sacred and predictable.

Enhancing group cohesion and community

The Bhutanese refugees living in South Philadelphia may all live in one neighborhood because of their similar ethnic backgrounds however each household has come from a different community in Bhutan or a different refugee camp in Nepal. Upon arrival, the refugees have similar trauma experiences and the same language however they do not always have familial or communal bonds. The BuildaBridge art therapy groups bring together families from different circumstances, uniting them for common purposes and strengthening the already existing bonds they have to create cohesion. Therapists ask children to share their artwork which in turn, helps other children understand their choices, experiences and similarities. Through the artwork and sharing of it, children identify others who have been through similar circumstances or find others who are handling their new environment in similar ways. A group mural or group dance allows children to feed off of one another’s energies and skills, also teaching them how to work together and ultimately, bring them together for a common purpose just like their families are doing in building community in the neighborhoods of South Philadelphia.

Art as a metaphor for Life Lessons

Metaphors use a familiar concept to represent, symbolize, and teach a new or less familiar idea. Metaphors say things indirectly. They put two things together that are not alike in most ways to show how they are similar in one important way. The art-making process can be a metaphor to describe life and to teach things other than arts skills such as: wisdom, patience, goal-setting, asking for help, and parenting skills. For example, spotting in dance can be a metaphor for trust or for relying on friends and family for support during difficult experiences. For refugees, learning key life lessons or universal values accepted by all cultures, assists them in building personal capacity to function as responsible adults and strengthens their prospects for attaining social, emotional, and economic stability. Therapists use metaphors with refugees both formally and informally. Some group lessons are based entirely on a metaphor such as “Going with the flow in life is like a river because it keeps flowing through different obstacles.” Refugee children responded to this metaphor both artistically and personally, drawing a river mural and the obstacles it encounters in addition to commenting on obstacles they’ve experienced in their own lives. A more informal metaphor developed from a drawing activity. "Maybe we could make something out of this mistake. Sometimes the best pieces of art come out of mistakes that we make into something new.” Therapists then went on to discuss with children how mistakes in their personal lives or at school can often be turned into better opportunities and choices for the future. Using art-making as a metaphor for learning key life skills assists refugee children in developing character, strength and resiliency.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

She waived the scarves high and low

Written by Julia A. Crawford
Lead Therapeutic Movement Instructor, Bhutanese

Teaching in tough places sometimes means teaching 50 women who speak various dialects of Swahili (and you don’t) without a translator in the middle of a forest in a war zone. And sometimes it means teaching in South Philadelphia with no electricity.

The thing of it is, if the electrical outlets were working that day, it never would have happened.

I was bringing the Bhutanese group to a close with our closing ritual. The same ritual that we have done together since September, but the outlets weren’t working. I improvised, “Come to a circle. Everyone stomp your feet, we need to make a rhythm because the music won’t play. Add any rhythm to it you would like!” The children immediately held the steady beat in their feet and added flourish with unique half time, double time, and some off time clapping.

I entered the circle with my two scarves as I always do each week. I danced. I passed the scarves to a child, who then entered the circle and did a fantastic knee-lifting jig. The children took their turns, one after another, as always. But something special was happening this week, something profound. We were creating the rhythm for each other, we needed each other, and we were supporting one another fluidly and importantly. We were beginning to enter a “thin space” – a transcendent moment.

As the scarves were being passed from child to child I gestured to the four women who had come early to collect their children to join us in the circle. They shook their heads no as they giggled at my offer, yet they were clapping and supporting us with their contributed rhythm. As the last child ended their improvised dance, he handed the scarves back to me. But the momentum was alive and the children were clapping and laughing and dancing about as they maintained the circle, so I took a risk. I danced over to the eldest woman, the grandmother of a child who comes regularly to our sessions.
I danced to her, she met my eyes with hers, and as I handed her the scarves she took them. She stood up slowly and moved with poise to the center of our circle. The children were ecstatic, jumping out of their skin ecstatic. They supported her with strong rhythms and laughter and beaming smiles. She waived the scarves high and low and held my eyes in hers all the while. I clapped for her with an open heart. My eyes were welling up and so were hers. She finished her dance and pressed the palms of her hands together and bowed her head. I did the same.

She danced the scarves over to another child, this child then danced to another mother, who danced too! This mother passed the scarves to another child, who danced to another mother, who also danced! She then passed the scarves to another child who then danced the scarves over to HIS mother. As he handed her the scarves they began to dance together to the sound of our rhythm.
The children burst into cheering as this came to a close. Their voices speaking the words of the BuildaBridge motto, “I will surround myself with people who want the best for me…” resounded like never before. Dancing together heals and connects us.

I went to the grandmother to say thank you, we don’t speak the same language, but we were communicating. I placed my hands on my heart and with my eyes told her that she had moved me. She placed the palms of her hands together again and bowed her head as she moved closer to me and I did the same. And then she hugged me. I was filled up. It was mutual. We had shared a thin space.

Tony Kuschner’s poem entitled “An Undoing World” reads:
You drift away, you're carried by a stream.
Refugee a wanderer you roam;
You lose your way, so it will come to seem:
No Place in Particular is home.
You glance away, your house has disappeared,
The sweater you've been knitting has unpurled.
You live adrift, and everything you feared
Comes to you in this undoing world.

It may be that children and mothers and grandmothers who are seeking refuge in a new country feel that no place in particular is home as they strive to integrate the values and rituals of the past with survival in the present, but it also may be that home can be felt for a moment in someone’s eyes when you are surrounded by people who want the best for you.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Going with the Flow

“Going with the flow is like a river because it keeps flowing through different obstacles.” 

Therapists used this metaphor in Sunday’s art therapy group to transition children from one lesson to the next.  The last few groups children learned how to turn mistakes on their artwork into something new; the same way one can make a mistake in life and turn it into a new opportunity.  Children understood this lesson as evidenced by their responses, “You can work through it” or “You can change it into something else” and also by their artwork when they weren’t allowed a second piece of paper; rather, asked to use their current piece with mistakes and make it into a new drawing.  Building on this lesson of helping children adapt to the changes in their lives, the therapist introduced the phrase, “Going with the flow” which is like a river that keeps going despite the curves, bumps and hills.   
Art therapist Christine Byma leads a discussion with children about their artwork.

Therapists asked the children to differentiate between a lake and a river, pre-testing the group’s knowledge of the academic subject.  Their responses included, “A river flows and a lake does not” and “a river curves and is not always straight.”  Using a geography book, the therapist then read descriptions of each with accompanying visual images.  Building on previous group lessons of warm and cool colors, children began drawing and coloring a collective mural of a large river using their recently gained knowledge.  Children will add to this mural in the coming weeks as they learn key life, art, social and academic lessons.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Developing Leaders in the Bhutanese community

Children who have experienced trauma and are in tranistion often lack control of their actions, impulsivity and words.  The activities developed for the Bhutanese art therapy groups are all designed to help children gain confidence in their decisions and find focus through those activities.  The therapist's consistent positive regard and encouragement to be independent in addition the safe place for artistic exploration allows children to develop better impulse control.  Julia Crawford, lead therapeutic movement instructor for Bhutanese groups, provides the evidence that the BuildaBridge art therapy groups are truly making a difference in the lives of individual children.  During the most recent group, March 10th, Julia analyzes one child's behavior:

"P. is developing greatly in impulse control and is becoming a leader in the class. He lights up when he is asked to lead. He patiently waits his turn to read the lines of the motto and rules because he knows his turn is coming. He watches the art therapist's eyes intently and when she looks to him he often says, “it’s my turn” and then reads. He is wholeheartedly engaged in painting, often producing more than 3 pieces of art with each project. When he finishes, the art therapist engages him in conversation about his work; it is clear that he has completed the piece the way he planned it. He also often dances with his whole body, doing a repetitive knee lifting jig that uses more of a range of movement than many of the other children use. This appears to encourage others to explore."

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Mistakes to Opportunities

Julia Crawford assisting a child with his art project
Sunday's art therapy group with the Bhutanese children taught them a valuable life lesson...even if we make mistakes, we can turn them into other opportunities and better choices for the future.  The lesson began the group prior when a child accidentally smeared black paint on his paper.  The child asked for another piece to re-start his project.  Julia Crawford, lead therapeutic movement instructor, gave the child another paper, yet in the moment, recognized an opportunity to share a life lesson.  "Maybe we could make something out of this mistake. Sometimes the best pieces of art come out of mistakes that we make into something new.”  

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Hello, Hello, how do you do?

by Danielle Dembrosky-Bossert

Bhutanese children sing this welcome song at the beginning of each art therapy group held in South Philadelphia twice a month. The song originates from Dr. Vivian Nix-Early's (COO) work as music therapist and is used in many BuildaBridge art therapy groups as a welcome song or ritual.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Children as Trees

By Julia Crawford (right)
Just before the start of the Bhutanese refugee therapeutic movement and visual art session, the mother of a young boy who attends our sessions regularly began to tell me that her son had been hit by a car since our last session. As she told the story, her 7-year-old son buzzed around the room, whistling and dancing, exploring and touching every interesting thing in the room. He seemed to keep an ear open to hearing what his mother shared and he became particularly intrigued when his 10-year-old sister came over to contribute to the story. Her eyes welled up as she explained what it was like to see her brother in the hospital. Upon seeing this, he quickly came over to tease her for caring about him. Both children have already experienced a great deal in their short years.