Last month I partnered with Pass the Crayon, an incredible NGO in Berlin that offers arts workshops to refugee kids there. We conducted a one-week pre-production workshop for about 13 kids using fun, hands-on activities to teach story structure, character development, scripting, storyboarding, and a little set design. On the last day, some of the kids decided they wanted to act out their stories, so they enlisted the help of their friends to bring their stories to life (more photos coming soon)!
Working (playing) with these kids was a really joyful experience for me. There were such a variety in this group—boys and girls aged seven or eight years to about 12 years old, from Kenya, Afghanistan, Serbia, and the majority from Syria; some kids had been in Germany for three years and some had arrived only a couple of weeks ago—but in this multipurpose room on the third floor of the shelter they all call home, everyone is a neighbor, literally. Despite the difference in ages, genders, countries of origin, even language, borders melt away when you’re working on a storyboard shoulder-to-shoulder and you need someone to “pass the crayon.”
I want to share a couple of my favorite moments from the week, that help illustrate the lovely things that can happen when we create art together (all children’s names have been changed). Noora, Nada, and Ahmed are siblings about 12, 11, and 8 years old. They came from Syria with their mother to join their father, who had already been in Germany for a few years. Noora, Nada, and Ahmed do not speak much German yet, and they don’t speak English at all. None of the staff who were present for the workshop speaks Arabic, but the three siblings were so keen to come participate—which I think must have taken quite a bit of courage. There was a younger girl in the workshop, Samira, who was also from Syria. Samira is about ten years old I’d say. She’s pretty fluent in German, but she doesn’t speak English (though it didn’t stop her trying to communicate with me using emphatic hand gestures!). Samira—spunky and confident—stepped right in to help make sure Noora, Nada, and Ahmed could fully participate in the activities like everyone else. At the start of each activity, I would give instructions in English, Manon (the kids’ amazing social worker) would translate what I said into German, then Samira would translate the German instructions into Arabic for the siblings and relay back any questions they had, or try to answer them herself. Each link in this translation chain was so patient and kind that the process was surprisingly fluid. Samira got to reinforce her translation skills, and became closer especially to the sisters as the workshop went on. And the siblings found a welcoming place where they could make new friends and exercise their creativity.
There was also a boy, Rahman, from Afghanistan. At about 11 or 12 years old, he was one of the oldest in the workshop, and is kind of a leader within his group of friends. He loves to make jokes and show off for the other boys. Being introduced to a new group of kids, especially pre-teens and young teenagers, can be a little nerve-wracking. It’s around this age that kids are beginning to try on new characters and see what hits and misses within their social circles. Combine this with the introduction of an outsider, not to mention each kid’s personal psychological picture, and you just have no idea what the process of connecting with a group of kids is going to look like. So at the beginning of the first day, when Rahman walked in with his mock Ray-Bans on, I thought to myself ok here we go.
Rahman is in many ways a typical boy like you’d see anywhere in a Western European or American city. He loves soccer. He’s got his crew of boys he runs around with. And like I said, he’s a jokester. But Rahman has a secret side. This kid is a storyteller. As soon as we got into story cubes or drawing characters or storyboarding or scripting, he instantly zeroed-in on the task. He needed almost no help or inspiration—he jumped right in with a clarity like he’d been thinking all night about what he wanted to create. Each activity, he was the first to finish. By the third day, he was so far ahead and his work was actually so nice and clear that I used his pieces as examples for kids who needed more clarification. When reflecting after the workshop, specifically on Rahman, I thought I should have found some more challenging or engaging activities for him, or taken time to dig a little deeper into proper script format. Most days he would finish before anyone else, show us what he was working on, then put his things in his folder and run outside to play soccer or go back and hang out at his apartment. Later though after getting and giving feedback with Manon, I learned that when the question arises of whether the crew of boys will come to a workshop or go play soccer, soccer often wins. Moreover, Pass the Crayon usually does one- or two-day workshops, not week-long workshops, and workshops are not mandatory. The fact that Rahman showed up for a week says to me that this material is something he wants in his life. I’m so happy that we could give him that, and help introduce him to a new way of storytelling.
This experience has solidified my resolve to work with displaced youth wherever and whenever possible. I especially hope to return to Berlin and do more workshops with the wonderful people at Pass the Crayon in the future. Thank you to Manon Jourdan, Andra Dols, Sevin Özdemir, Martin Ringenbach, all the PTC volunteers, and the staff at the Weißensee shelter. Big hugs, and tschüss!