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Ousama Alkhatib (left) helped launch the 3-month program.

Syrian refugee finds beautiful way to help those he ‘left behind’

Soon after moving to Canada, Ousama Alkhatib helped launch an arts program for Syrian newcomers in Toronto that also gives back to refugees still in camps.

By Mugoli Samba

One thing had been on Ousama Alkhatib’s mind since he first got to Canada - helping those he had “left behind”.

Alkhatib is a Syrian refugee who moved to Toronto under the sponsorship of Fairlawn United in July 2016. This past winter, he created an arts program for Syrian newcomers, and helped organize an art show that collected nearly $1,500 for Syrian Eyes.

The not-for-profit organization runs a children’s art program at a refugee camp in Al-Fares, Lebanon, where Alkhatib volunteered.

“When I arrived in Canada, I wasn’t the type of person who considers themselves lucky, and leaves (their) people behind for nothing,” says Alkhatib. “It’s not about us being lucky here, it’s about us doing something for the people there. I decided to do something here”.

Fairlawn United put Alkhatib in touch with Donna Tranquada, a volunteer from ArtHeart - a community art centre in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood. Tranquada says she had been thinking of a similar program, and contacted Fairlawn to see if they knew someone she could speak to.

“The people at Fairlawn said ‘Oh talk to Ousama! Ousama has been dreaming about this kind of project ever since he arrived in Canada!’ So, of course I had to meet Ousama,” says Tranquada. “We hit it off, and started putting our heads together”.

Donna Tranquada (right) works on a piece with a participant.

The program was launched this January thanks to ArtHeart offering their space free of charge, and a donation from Fairlawn United to help pay for art supplies. About 15 participants, all Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian refugees, attended weekly workshops at ArtHeart until March, where they received art classes offered by volunteers, and created everything from collages to large paintings.

“This program had no strict rules. It was freestyle art. Whatever you want to paint, whatever you want to use, just go and use it,” says Alkhatib. “That was my hope for the project. To have people feel free, and express themselves the way they want. I totally believe in art therapy. Painting and singing, music are huge tools for healing people.”

Alkhatib had witnessed the healing power of art first-hand. While volunteering with Syrian Eyes in Lebanon, he says he saw children’s paintings change over time – from bombs, tanks and people dying, to houses, butterflies and rainbows.

“It helped heal them from the trauma that they had. They started to expand their dreams from drawing repeatedly. Started drawing children (who are) doing normal things,” he says.

Art from the 'Our Art, Our Stories' exhibition.
Art from the 'Our Art, Our Stories' exhibition.

Participants at Alkhatib’s workshop in Toronto sold some of their pieces at Our Art, Our Stories – an exhibition held in April 2018 to celebrate the end of the program. Alkhatib also managed to coordinate the sale of children’s artwork he received from Syrian Eyes.

Over 150 people filled the show’s venue, and collectively amassed nearly $1,500. All proceeds were sent to the organization.

“Some of the participants had done art back in Syria, and have had to give it up because of the war, and then having to flee. This was an opportunity to integrate them into an arts community,” says Tranquada.

“Others had never done art before, but this was a chance to try something new, meet some new people, and do something different rather than just schooling or work”.

Tranquada and Alkhatib hope the project will be ongoing, and that it can start up again in the fall. Our Art, Our Stories will be showcased in Toronto this summer.

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