War Toys




Chronicling the process behind WAR-TOYS from the perspective of toy photographer Brian McCarty.

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Young Refugee's "Bad" and "Good" Cities

On March 3rd, Art Therapist Myra Saad (Artichoke Studio) and I returned to the Kayany Foundation's Malala Yousafzai School near the eastern border of Lebanon. We worked with a mixed-gender group of children (8-12 years old) and picked up where we left off in the previous session. It had ended with the children collaboratively designing an idealized "good" city. However, when put to a vote, they decided that it would be better to construct a "bad" city first, then rebuild on top of it the next time we met. 

Beginning like all of Myra's sessions do - with a lot of energy.

Discussion about the "bad" city before the children split into groups. 

After warmup games and a lengthy discussion, the boys and girls separated into groups, each building a diorama representing a different part of the worst city they could imagine: a destroyed school, park, hospital, and homes...although the lines between each got a little blurry in the final results.  

Many of the groups started by building settings with green and even flowers (like in the hospital grounds, left). 

Quickly, the scenes turned to carnage. By the end, we had run out of red paint.  

Not every scene started bright. This is what would become a destroyed cityscape. 

Cut up plastic bottles used for broken glass, of which there was a lot. 

When the groups were done, Myra got everyone together to discuss their creations and the imagined inhabitants of the city. 

When the groups were done, Myra got everyone together to discuss their creations and the imagined inhabitants of the city. 

In talking about their work, a few chose to emphasize the destruction. 

This home and "lovely garden" were nearly unrecognizable after being further destroyed. 

The session ended with discussion away from the cities, more games, and another valiant attempt at guided meditation to the soothing sounds of Enya. A few the children, still needing to vent, made it extra challenging, but as always the boys and girls left with smiles and waves. 

In a few fleeting moments before heavy rain began to fall, I grabbed some quick photos of the finished city tiles immediately outside the classroom. 

Remains of a city with a "river of blood."

A destroyed school, "empty except for ghosts." 

The rubble of a home, formerly with a "lovely garden."

A blown up (but still used) hospital with a casket sitting to the left of the building. 

Due to scheduling conflicts, we didn't meet with this group again until the 10th. In that week, I accumulated a lot of toys while planning and shooting WAR-TOYS setups in the area. Often buying a whole set to get a single piece, I had a lot of leftover toys. The extras were brought in for use by this group as well as the older, all-girls group (which will be covered in the next post).

Planning how to reconstruct the destroyed "bad" city into something good. 

Planning how to reconstruct the destroyed "bad" city into something good. 

The children were waiting outside the school gate when we arrived. Already excited to start, they were nearly beside themselves after helping us carry in the recycled craft materials, art supplies, and GIANT bag of toys. After a quick round of games to get everyone thinking about working together, Myra had the "bad" cities brought out for discussion. It didn't take long for the boys and girls to form smaller groups and start the transformation.

When the girls and boys were done, Myra assembled the group around their handiwork. Unlike the "bad" city, the children chose to put each of the independent tiles together, forming one creation. Their reconstructed school featured colored blocks surrounding the perimeter and armed guards watching the gate. The park had children playing around a fountain, a river running on one of its corners, and animals running about. What was an amorphous debris-pile of homes and a garden became thriving apartment blocks and a community garden, all with cars going by. The casket was gone from the hospital grounds, replaced by a tower with a fountain and trees in front. 

The group assembled, each talking about their part of the city. 

The completed "good" city with a school (guarded by soldiers), a park with children playing, homes with cars driving by, and a hospital tower with fountain in front. 

With time running short - too short even for Enya - I unfortunately didn't have an opportunity to take detail shots of the different tiles. Instead, Myra and I decided to end our sessions with the children by inviting each of them to take a memento of their city with the promise that they'd remember what they were capable of creating. As much as we wanted to load the kids up with all of the extra toys, there is a firm protocol in place. To prevent rivalries within the camp between children and families, toys can't be given out directly. They have to come from the school in a manner that is considered fair to everyone. In this case, since the toys represent more than just playthings, we felt right letting the children keep a few. 

The children taking turns choosing a memento from the sessions.

The children taking turns choosing a memento from the sessions.

On the drive back to Beirut, Myra and I talked about the sessions. She remarked that the children may not have been ready for the "good" city. Even through their creations had a very positive effect, she saw that many of the boys and girls still needed to vent and express more of what they had experienced in Syria. As an example, they said how much easier it was to think about destroying than rebuilding. Clearly, there are strong feelings that still need to be processed. While it's easy to feel warm and fuzzy about the children coming together and making something so happy and colorful in these sessions, I don't want to present any false narratives. Their recovery will likely be a long process. I'm grateful that we could help them down that road a little, even more so that the Kayany Foundation will be continuing the work.

My thanks again goes to the amazing children that participated, Myra Saad, everyone at the Kayany Foundation, and intern Ranine Swaid.