“What are we painting today?”
The question followed me as I walked down the hallway. Some 15 minutes before we were scheduled to start, there were already a dozen children crammed into the activity room to begin our weekly art session. More were coming.
Usually, kids participating in the art program at IRIS (Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services) trickle in slowly over the first half-hour of our scheduled time. But today was a painting day and that draws a crowd. By the time we started, 25 children ranging in age from 4 to 14 had paint, a brush and paper, and all were eager to start.
Each year, IRIS welcomes and resettles as many as 200 refugees — people who have fled persecution and violence in their homelands — into the New Haven community. Between one-third and one-half of the newcomers are children. To meet the special needs of these youth, IRIS’s Education and Youth Services team coordinates extensive after-school and summer programming for young people of all ages. Through the Yale student organization HealthCORE, School of Public Health students (as well as those from Yale College and other graduate and professional programs) often volunteer as facilitators for these activities.
At the end of the 2010-2011 academic year, several of my classmates administered a survey to IRIS clients to better understand what after-school programs were most popular and what additional programs could be developed. Several requests for arts and crafts activities led Claire Greene, Milena Gianfrancesco and Britton Gibson (all 2012 YSPH graduates) to propose an art program in the fall 2011 semester. Together with Jasmine Carver, M.P.H. ’13, we developed a curriculum that would be fun for our young participants, while also simultaneously addressing some of their needs as young refugees.
In addition to the opportunity for creative expression, the children benefit from the therapeutic nature of art. Through drawing, painting, paper cutting and other activities, they have an emotional outlet and method of communication that is not limited by language barriers or access to resources. Although every refugee’s experience is different, children forced to leave their homes and resettle in a new country are particularly vulnerable. The IRIS art program provides a stable, fun and safe space for these young people as they adjust to a new life.
Designing and implementing the program gave me a valuable opportunity: to have a direct impact on the health and well-being of children in New Haven. This experience has also allowed me to bridge my interests in public health and community development, utilizing the skills I learned as a YSPH student in a creative and meaningful way. As both a coordinator and facilitator of the art program, I noticed encouraging changes in the participating children’s engagement with art and with one another as the program progressed. I look forward to seeing how we can expand the program, as art becomes a permanent component of IRIS’s services for resettled refugee children.
During the 2012-2013 school year, the IRIS art program (which operated through donations and supplies already available at IRIS during its pilot year) will be funded by a grant from the Mayor’s Community Arts Grants Program. Jasmine Carver and Natalie Price (both second-year M.P.H students) will coordinate the program with support from Anna Zonderman.
(This story originally appeared in the Yale School of Public Health magazine. Click here to read more stories from that issue.)