Supported by Nice-based Syria.Art and iNGO World Vision, two adolescent girls just wrapped up a joint exhibition showing the power of art in overcoming trauma and difficult emotions.

DISCLOSURE: This exhibition was initiated and curated by Natja Igney, the author of this article. Every effort has been made to report objectively and accurately.

Art is an extraordinary connector of people from all walks of life, as two young girls who are growing up worlds apart can attest to. 11 year old Rahma is a Syrian refugee girl living in Jordan, and 13 year old Lauren Elizabeth Graham hails from a peaceful small Canadian town. And yet, their paths crossed this summer, at least virtually, at their joint art exhibition “Rahma & Friends – Art will see us through” at the Kings Playhouse theatre and art space in Georgetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada. After a seven week run, the show just closed on August 7, leaving a lasting impact on visitors.

PEI Event Poster

What connects two girls like Lauren and Rahma? At first glance, they don’t seem to have much in common:

Lauren is your quintessential Western teenager from a loving and stable middle class home, and terribly busy between school, soccer practice, saxophone lessons, step dance, creating art, caring for her pets, and helping her parents with her younger sisters. The world she is growing up in is happy, safe, and secure.

Lauren’s work is colourful, expressive, abstract, and a study in contrasts that is a reflection of her inner self. Intelligent and mature beyond her age, she certainly appreciates the good life that Lady Fortune has blessed her with, but she is a highly sensitive person who naturally intuits the suffering of others. That is what brings her down on occasions. She hasn’t quite figured out yet what she wants to do later in life – maybe become a veterinarian like her mom – or also an artist… why not keep it open for now?

Rahma’s universe is a very different one: war, violence, death, terror, displacement, and disruption have been her constant companions since her earliest childhood. Her family was forced to flee Syria at the outbreak of the conflict in 2011 and has since been living in precarious circumstances as refugees in Jordan.

Underneath Rahma’s gentle demeanor, there is a fighter and a survivor; her focus is on strong women because she finds them inspirational and she wants to be like them. Her imaginary models all have a defiant look on their face, and a decidedly Western attitude. The simple white sheet of paper, the black pencil, and the very sparingly used red crayon make it painfully clear that those are all the art supplies she has available. Rahma is smart, loves learning and knows exactly what she wants in life: to become a doctor. And an artist.

When Rahma’s artwork arrived in Prince Edward Island, it held a big surprise: several of her drawings were almost identical to Lauren’s. The two girls had never met, had never even talked… and yet, their minds worked in impressively similar ways, as for instance these two drawings show (Rahma’s on the left, Lauren’s on the right):

The way these two talented young artists’ paths met is a movie-worthy story in serendipity which started with a cat named Melvin, and which PEI Guardian journalist Logan MacLean captured so well in his comprehensive article about the exhibition. But it took the proverbial village to make this show happen … a village spanning across half the planet, from Jordan via France to Canada:

When working on iNGO World Vision’s re-awareness campaign about the ongoing Syria conflict in spring of 2021, journalist and communications consultant Natja Igney came across Rahma. The then-10-year-old is among the over 430,000 children WV’s Jordan-based “Syria Response” office had reached out to in Jordan, Syria and Turkey by the beginning of 2021. When writing down Rahma’s story, the thought of the young girl’s dearest wish to exhibit her drawings somewhere, sometime, stayed in Natja’s mind. It seemed impossible to realize, given the circumstances. But soon a vision emerged:

Georgetown is a small but mighty town in the Atlantic-Canadian province of Prince Edward Island (PEI), and the Kings Playhouse is its much beloved community theatre with an adjacent art space. It is run by Executive Director Haley Zavo, a self-declared “Yes!” kind of person with a great affinity for Syria. No wonder that Natja turned to her in her search for a suitable exhibition space for Rahma’s drawings. Duly impressed by the high quality of Rahma’s work, Haley didn’t hesitate to offer her gallery and her support to make show happen.

To establish a relatable local context for Canadians, there was no better person to turn to than Lauren Elizabeth Graham. The Island native had first sparked the attention of art critics when at age 11 she exhibited some of her paintings at the prestigious Gravis Art Gallery in Nice, France, in 2019 – to date, the youngest Canadian to ever exhibit internationally. A subsequent invitation to the 2020 Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain (FIAC) in Paris was sadly cancelled due to the pandemic but another exhibition is on the horizon in Italy. So what better occasion that a joint exhibition with a peer to introduce the talented young lady to her own compatriots?
But putting the idea of a joint expo into action required first and foremost the support of Jordan-based World Vision Syria Response, in whose care Rahma and her family are. Local WV staffers Elias Abu Ata and Sayo Matsuzaki did a heroic job facilitating the project from their end, making endless journeys from the office to Rahma’s far-away location to help with whatever was needed from collecting and shipping Rahma’s artwork to producing videos to introduce the young artists under circumstances that are far from easy. Since the Land of the Maple Leaf had been the chosen destination for this exhibition, World Vision Canada also dedicated plenty of resources toward logistics and communication of this event.

Meanwhile, Haley Zavo and her team drummed up a terrific support programme for the vernissage on June 19, the date chosen in honour of World Refugee Day. The personalities heeding her call to appear at the opening event included virtually all of the Island’s political leadership, The Honourable Antoinette Perry – representing Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II on PEI – , acclaimed war author Sharon E. McKay and Lebanese-Canadian singers Ava & Lily Rashed. Haley had also asked Island artists to make frames for some of Rahma’s drawings. The PEI Lebanese expat and newcomer communities were also mobilized, helping with a translator for Rahma during her live greeting, and sponsoring a delightful pastry buffet.

But the highlight of the opening event on June 19 were Rahma and Lauren themselves: Unable to attend in person for obvious reasons, Rahma was patched in by live video from 8,000 km away. And Lauren showcased yet another one of her artistic talents when she delivered a poem she had written for the occasion, “But this is reality”:

Lauren poem

You can watch (or relive) the opening event here (starting at 6m40s), and don’t be fooled by the optics, it is a large theatre, and the 50 permitted seats were all taken.

But where there is a Syrian artist, Nice-based surgeon, artist, and humanitarian Dr. Khaled Youssef and his Syria.Art association are not far behind in lending their support. As an official partner of the expo, he graciously donated artwork, to be sold during the seven week show, with all proceeds going to World Vision Syria Response for their work with refugee children. He did so with all the more pleasure as Syria.Art has had frequent exhibitions across Canada already, most recently at the prestigious Penticton Art Gallery in November 2020.

But Khaled, who hails from Damascus, Syria but has lived and worked in France for about 25 years now, didn’t stop there. He also contributed a video, an illustrated poem and two personal letters to the girls, encouraging them in their endeavours:

Letter from Khaled for Lauren

Letter Khaled to Rahma EN for projection

And by now it becomes clear why the exhibition was called “Rahma & Friends”, rather than “Rahma & Lauren”… It shows that no matter how desperate your situation, as long as someone hears you and helps you, you are not alone, and you can dream the biggest dreams. And on occasions, they do come true.

The exhibition wrapped up on August 7 after seven weeks. Despite initial pandemic-related travel restrictions it was well attended and got great comments from visitors. Several of both girls’ paintings were sold. And there is currently interest in a follow-up exhibition in Paris, France.

All in all, this show started out with a dream, and if seemed impossible in the beginning, it saw the light of day thanks to a committed concerted effort across miles, borders, and continents. But beyond fulfilling a dream, there is a wonderful, heartwarming message in this story: It has shown that mental health issues can affect anyone, and that they can be turned into an asset. It has strengthened the confidence of these two remarkable young girls whose courage to be profiled will in turn inspire many others. It has fostered a better understanding between cultures and shown that differences only unite us and make us stronger. Be like Lauren and Rahma, and the rest will follow.

Words of positivity from Khaled

another grey line

Photo Credits

– Rahma photos: courtesy World Vision Syria Response and Kings Playhouse
– Rahma artwork: courtesy Rahma/World Vision Syria Response
– Lauren photos: courtesy Kings Playhouse and the Graham family.
– Lauren artwork: courtesy Lauren Elizabeth Graham
– Photos of Kings Playhouse and Haley Zavo: courtesy KP/HZ

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