There was a moment while walking on the dusty and ancient sidewalks of Istanbul, Turkey when my sister, Mehdia, and I were in disbelief about what was going to happen. We gazed up at the clotheslines full of freshly-washed clothes hanging to dry. It was like one of those “pinch me” moments because this was actually real life. Something that we’ve always talked about was about to become a reality on this hot, summer day.
It was August 5th, 2015, and we were in one of the city’s poorer districts of Tarlabaşi, heading to Tarlabaşi Toplum Merkezi, also known as Tarlabaşi Community Centre. We were going to lead a special Frisbee art workshop with 13 Syrian refugee children, as part of Serendipity Visual Arts. Mehdia and I, as the founders of Serendipity Visual Arts, were also thankful to be accompanied by our brother Muneer and a few of our friends, who also participated in the workshop.
Serendipity Visual Arts was founded by me and Mehdia in June 2014, in order to provide more accessible artistic opportunities for youth in our community of St. James Town in Toronto. By delivering visual arts workshops, Serendipity Visual Arts aims to break social and economic barriers, leading youth to discover their artistic potential and pursue their interests in the visual arts. After winning a grant from ArtReach Toronto and the Toronto Arts Council, Serendipity Visual Arts was able to deliver these workshops, as well as connect youth to community and guest artists who facilitated special arts sessions. In addition to working with different types of art media, the St. James Town youth were introduced to the Toronto art scene through participation in field trips organized by Serendipity Visual Arts, such as trips to the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art and the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto.
When Mehdia and I researched the district of Tarlabaşi in Istanbul, we were surprised by how much it paralleled our community of St. James Town. Tarlabaşi is a community in which many residents are marginalized and are facing social exclusion due to their poverty as well as their being minorities in the Turkish population. Refugee children from Syria and Kurdish ethnic groups are some of the populations that Tarlabaşi Toplum Merkezi serves with its multi-faceted programming. For many children and youth in these marginalized groups, Tarlabaşi Toplum Merkezi serves as the hub of free education and arts programming. Moreover, Serendipity Visual Arts and Tarlabaşi Toplum Merkezi share the same goals of increasing accessibility of arts programming to marginalized young people, encouraging greater social inclusion, and creating positive social change in their local communities. When we found out how encouraging they were of new visual arts activities and that the community centre was in need of volunteers, we were even more inspired to share a taste of Serendipity Visual Arts with them.
The positive energy and enthusiasm we received from the staff and children at Tarlabaşi Toplum Merkezi was overwhelmingly beautiful. We had never really experienced anything like it. To hear that these children had eagerly awaited an entire week for our special Frisbee workshop was quite touching. Despite the fact that it was the first time that most of the youth had the opportunity to participate in an art workshop of this kind, we were amazed by their artistic talent and interest. Even with the language barrier that existed between us, as most of the children spoke Turkish, we were fascinated by how effectively we communicated together through the symbolic power of images and visual art, proving that art can transcend a multitude of barriers. This activity was also therapeutic to the children, who were Syrian refugees; it served as an effective healing method for those who have faced conflict and stressful situations fleeing the civil war in Syria.
I will never forget the delightful moment when their faces lit up with joy when they found out that they were able to keep their Frisbee artwork. I will never forget the moments of leaving Tarlabaşi Toplum Merkezi, when the children ran excitedly through the streets with their Frisbees to explain to their families that we were the ones who gave them this gift. The decorated Frisbees were also used in a special Frisbee competition at the community centre, which was a great way to encourage physical activity in the children. We also gave Tarlabaşi Toplum Merkezi a canvas design of a Turkish-inspired mandala to paint together as a token of our appreciation, and were delighted to get updates last February on how creatively they completed the canvas.
Mehdia and I are incredibly grateful to Tarlabaşi Toplum Merkezi for giving us this opportunity to share our passions with the Syrian refugee children, and we are grateful to our parents who supported us in this journey. Serendipity Visual Arts in Turkey left us with unforgettable memories that we will cherish forever, making us realize how we must never underestimate our ability to make a positive impact on the world and spread goodness. It reminded us of how local actions can translate to global actions if one is passionate about the cause. Perhaps, most of all, it reminded us of the universal language of art as a powerful tool for creating positive social change and healing, no matter which part of the globe we are in.
By Maryam Hassan
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