The only steadiness in life is change
Art therapy for women from the war zones of Northern Iraq, a work in progress
The art-therapeutic support is intended to serve the restructuring, stabilization and orientation of these highly traumatized people, to strengthen their self-esteem and to support their return to everyday life.
Painting and drawing
At first, they started out through painting and drawing. By striving towards the center of their artistic image, they are led to reconnect to their own centers. After aight months, when the children and the younger men and women started language classes, I continued working with just the mothers.
"What gives them strength?", "How can they rediscover their dignity and self-worth?" these questions were in the background for me, as I led them in their artistic and therapeutic process with the emphasis on their individual expression.
In my search for their inner resources, I discovered their interest in crafts, especially the processing of sheep wool. The women got right into it and managed to spin eight kilograms of raw wool (with a hand spindle) in a short time. This was a familiar and satisfying activity for them.
In the summer of 2016 through a gigantic effort we dyed a total of 14 kilos of pure sheep wool with local plants. As much as possible we collected plants from this area, on our nature walks together. The idea was, that this would help them connect with the new environment they found themselves in, so far away from their home country. Also I wanted to reconnect them with the healing powers of nature, which they are so familiar with from their own culture.
We used the skin from apple tree branches and took ivy from their garden, the herb “Ladies Mantle” from the nearby woods, leaves from birches and walnut trees, onion skins from their own kitchens. The local plants gave us many hues from beige to lemon yellow, even golden yellow. From Henna, a color they traditionally use to paint their hands, we made a magnificent Orange. Cochenille came from India, for the blue tones, we bought Indigo, a well-known African plant.
Later, we mixed the dyes: yellow with Indigo made green tones etc. Then came the hand dipping of the many skeins of wool into the different pots filled with the dyes. The women participated as much as their strength permitted. Of course they were also welcome to just sit in the garden and admire the work.
The admiration and joy about the colorful results literally enlivened them and showed on their faces.
After that, they started embroidering pillows and later little bags. Some with traditional Kurdish patterns, others with their own free designs. One could see joy returning to them.
At first I continuously heard. "I can’t do this!" "I do not know, how to!", or "We used to be able to do that before, but now we have no more strength!" But they were open to encouragement and learning. Now more and more I heard "We can do this!" and courage and self-esteem grew. We gave our group the name ‘Shingal’, after their native mountain range, which they all could identify with.
Christmas Market 2016
The participation in the Rottweil Christmas Market in 2016 presented an important highlight. The women were now brave and strong enough that they wanted to come in contact with the public by presenting not only their unique and beautiful textiles, but also by offering culinary specialties from their local cuisine. It was a total success, the people of Rottweil were very interested and appreciative of the vegetarian alternative to the German “Bratwurst”. When the women demonstrated their perfect craft of spinning with pride and joy, they immediately attracted clusters of people around them. For the first time, a connection was made with the urban population.
Invitation for more
The City of Rottweil has since invited us to participate in the next City Festival in September 2017 as an additional enrichment to their usual cultural and culinary agenda. The aknowledgement and acceptance by the people of Rottweil helps these women to overcome their self-doubt and feelings of shame and assists them in their healing process.
Now the introduction of the art of weaving brought in a new aspect. The women regained trust in their own craft-abilities and the memory of what their mothers and grandmothers used to do, started to come back. Many shawls were made.
This rhythmic work was refreshing and invigorating, it created a kind of animated calmness and encouraged serenity. Girls and even young men took part in the weaving project, as always the whole community participated.
More and more, their strengths came back and there was less focus on their deficits. Would it be possible to found a small manufacturing company sometime in the future? The women could regain more control over their own existence. It is essential for the experience of self-efficiency to co-create their own income. This newly gained feeling of self-worth opens up a new sense of living and gives them hope and confidence, that someday they can take their lives in their own hands and are more able to bear all that they have suffered.
Why our title "The only steadiness in life is change"?
Their progress, over the last nearly 1½ years, as outlined above is not a straightforward one, but happens in many tiny steps, sometimes back and forth, sometimes to and fro, sometimes it stops, sometimes it moves. But we did experience, that these heavily traumatized people are very motivated to actively participate in their betterment, their healing and the restructuring of their lives, despite their mental and physical wounding. They have mastered the Latin script, and are now studying the German language.
I find it extremely important to lead them with loving kindness, with empathy, and lots of patience, and to keep in mind, that their progress is much slower, than the German idea of learning expects of them. It takes empathy, understanding and utmost care to gently draw them from the dark place they are to where they can be.Cultural differences are added to the traumatization. These people had a completely different life than we Germans do, with more serenity and a completely different sense and style of living.
learning from one another
We, the people of Central Europe, can also learn from the lifestyle of these very warm-hearted and hospitable people.We should reevaluate our own ideas about our lifestyles, the efficiency of our school systems, social values etc. These people need space and time to move on each according to their own speed and capability. We should allow them the time they need to recover and integrate into our Central European structures, rather than pushing them too early and too hard with set expectations.
It is art that can connect cultures, beyond language barriers, cultural and social differences and even traumas and it is art that offers the possibility to open the soul, and thus gives room for inner harmony, beauty and necessary changes.