A world away, a group of Syrian children laughed and joked as they worked on the same art project kids in Skagit County had done a few months earlier.
The project, which consisted of a self-reflection poem and self-portrait, was completed in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan with the help of a four-person team from the nonprofit Voices of the Children.
Executive Director Aaron Wagner said the Mount Vernon-based organization aims to give youths the freedom and resources to tell their own story so they can take control of their narrative and reach their full potential.
Over the course of their three-week stay, the team worked with two groups of Syrian and Jordanian youths — the first at a Youth Without Borders host center and the second in a refugee camp called Azraq.
“It was literally life changing,” said Sherry Chavers, a retired Anacortes teacher who was part of the team. “I don’t say that in any trivialized way. I will never be the same.”
Voices of the Children partnered with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) on the project in Jordan. The council is a non-governmental organization that provides aid to those forced to flee.
Cristian De Luca, NRC project manager for education in camps in Jordan, said the timing and vision of the Voices of the Children project proposal couldn’t have been better.
The proposal was received as the council was planning activities for the following year, and the Voices of the Children vision — which included social and emotional learning, as well as building trust within the community — aligned with the council’s education programs, De Luca said.
Plus, he said the program wasn’t centered on war.
“In the camps, these people are constantly talking about the war and displacement, and that’s understandable,” De Luca said. “You would be too. But we also need something else. Voices of the Children was something else.”
Through the project, young people in both the youth center and refugee camp were able to work through their hardships.
On the first day of the project in the refugee camp, a young girl broke down while reciting a poem by a Syrian poet, Wagner said.
“The last day, she found the courage to not only make it through the poem, but nail the poem so confidently,” he said.
This month, Wagner and Chavers sat at a table at Ristretto Coffee Lounge & Wine Bar in Mount Vernon, reminiscing on the project.
The two, along with Pacific Northwest artist Sarah Denby and Jordanian-Palestinian poet Rawan Risheq, ended their journey March 20 after working with 38 Syrian and Jordanian youths.
Today, more than 5.6 million Syrians are registered refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Of those, 659,063 were residing in Jordan as of March 13.
Though profound pain and loss are pieces of many refugees’ stories, they’re just that — a piece, not a whole, Chavers said. What’s often missing in the narratives of refugees is happiness.
“Some of the people who come in and do something short-term don’t reflect the completeness of the whole child or youth or person,” Chavers said. “They reflect the trauma and pain. They don’t reflect the joy.”
Voices of the Children has taken a different, long-term approach.
The portrait project, which began in Skagit County in October 2017, has reached more than 500 youths across two continents.
The local half of the project was made possible through collaboration with Voices of the Children, the Museum of Northwest Art and the Skagit River Poetry Foundation.
Together, the groups worked with local students — from third grade through high school — to bring forth their voices through words and art.
Participants wrote a self-reflection poem that was integrated into a self-portrait created with paint or pastels. Other than being limited to two colors — one light and one dark — students had full artistic liberty.
At the YMCA Oasis Daylight Center in Mount Vernon, 17-year-old Heather Ostberg recalled the impact she felt in participating in a project that would be implemented around the world.
“It was such a personal thing to make the poetry about yourself,” she said. “And that that is happening over there in another environment with kids whose lives I can’t begin to wrap my head around ... I was awestruck.”
Wagner, who quit his job as a Mount Baker Middle School choir teacher to start the organization, said its aim is to connect young people and encourage their creativity.
“That’s what we do through these art projects,” he said. “We provide opportunities for connection, validation, love, belonging, relationships.”
Next month, Mount Vernon’s First Street will be adorned with 100 portraits by participants in the art project. The art will be displayed for the first two weeks of May before moving on to the Skagit River Poetry Festival in La Conner.
In August, the portraits will be taken to Jordan, where they will be displayed in the youth center, the refugee camp and the Children’s Museum in Amman.
“How validating for these kids. Syrian refugee kids will get to see their work in Skagit Valley,” Wagner said. “People in the valley will read their words and relate to them even though they’re a world away and war-torn. Same for the kids here to have their work in a refugee camp. That’s the real goal of these projects.”