Art helps lift the haze of despair
A program designed to foster harmony and community in New York City now aims to bring hope to the youths of war-torn Bosnia.
NEW YORK — The drawing is of a vacant stone bridge. Two sailboats slip underneath its hefty, vaulted arches, and a few trees and clouds dot an otherwise blank landscape. "It's called 'Friendship Bridge,' " says Elana Haviv in the Manhattan office of her nonprofit Children's Movement for Creative Education (CMCE).
"What's so interesting," Ms. Haviv adds, "is it's a picture of a bridge meant to unite people. However, there are no people on it."
The portrait is by a teenager from Sarajevo. It is one of dozens that were exhibited for two weeks at the Hague Appeal for Peace Conference in New York. For Haviv, the feeling of hope and despair symbolized by the desolate bridge represents the mood among today's youth in Bosnia.
"These kids feel alone and face such a lack of opportunities," she says. "A teacher from Sarajevo referred to them as a 'lost generation,' and they really are."
Haviv and longtime friend Kate Chumley, who is codirector of the project, spent two weeks with 40 students, ages 15 to 22, at the Arts Secondary School and First Bosniak School in Sarajevo. Most of the students were of Muslim background.
Each class began with stretching exercises followed by several minutes of meditation to release pent-up energy. Then the students would paint, draw, or write down their hopes for the future and views of the past.
The Bosnia program is an extension of Haviv's efforts to bring an artistic approach to education in her native New York.
Haviv, whose father is Israeli and mother is American, began CMCE in 1995 after graduating from Bryn Mawr College outside Philadelphia. But she had already been using art as an educational tool for some time.
In fact, she began developing nontraditional approaches to teaching while studying sociology and anthropology as an undergraduate. Her curriculum was heavily influenced by her love of acting. Its aim was to help students who, like her, learned best through movement and creativity.
"I like to use the energy the kids have and connect it to what they are doing," she says.
For her senior-year project, she met with 15 students once a week at an elementary school in south Philadelphia. After a warm-up of movement and meditation, the kids would put together a dance demonstrating how atoms are created, or make up a poem using the day's spelling words.
After graduation, Haviv returned to New York, and following a brief flirtation with an acting career, founded CMCE. The group, which is funded by Board of Education grants and private foundations, consists of seven part-time staff who teach in two lower schools and run training seminars in several other schools throughout New York City.
Among these is P.S. 31 in Brooklyn, where sixth-graders watched flames swallow the World Trade Center from their classroom windows on Sept. 11, 2001. Haviv encouraged all of the school's students to draw and write about the attacks as a way to deal with their feelings. Their work was exhibited for several weeks at the Empire State Building and at a Sept. 11 remembrance at the White House.
When asked why she chose the former Yugoslavia for her next venture, Haviv removes a book from the shelf, "Blood and Honey." It's a compilation of photos by her brother, Ron Haviv, a photojournalist in Bosnia during the war.
The title comes from the Turkish words for Balkan: "bal," blood; and "kan," honey. Her brother's involvement and his stories of snipers targeting civilians, including 3-year-olds, left her with a deep attachment to the region, especially its young people, and a deep conviction that art could give them the helping hand they needed.
Haviv will return for two weeks this month, accompanied by Ms. Chumley and art therapy expert David Henley from Long Island University. The three will meet with local officials to plan the curriculum for a five-month program. Then, in April, Haviv and Chumley will return to oversee the same 40 students who participated in the project last spring. The resulting artwork will be exhibited in Sarajevo and New York.
Efforts like Haviv's are especially timely as Bosnia inches toward autonomy, according to observers.
"Young people in Bosnia are in a very difficult situation," says Bruce Hitchner, chairman of the Dayton Peace Accords Project, which monitors the Balkans.
Threats are mostly fiscal now, not physical, but if the tax and legal system are not restructured, things could deteriorate, says Professor Hitchner. "The next six to nine months will be critical."
Young people don't need experts telling them what they face, Haviv says. Most Bosnian 18- to 22-year-olds have missed four years of high school because of the war and face an unemployment rate of 40 percent.
What's more, single-parent homes doubled between 1990 and 2000 in the Bosnia and Herzegovina region, which has a population currently estimated at 3.96 million.
For Haviv, it's the "underbelly" of the statistics that concerns her most. She recounts her experience setting up an event for Serb, Croat, and Muslim children last spring.
"My brother told me: 'Now you'll find out what is really going on,' " she recounts.
Just before the event, parents pulled their children out, saying they worried that ill feelings from the war would resurface if the groups met.
But lurking in the background was the sense that they simply did not want anything to do with one another, Haviv says. "My brother was right."
Haviv walks to her television set and plays a video made during that trip. A blonde teenager draws a colorful wing fluttering above an open window. "I want freedom, like a butterfly," she tells the camera as she adjusts a cigarette in her right hand. When asked her age, she replies: "I'm feeling now like I am 25, but I'm 17."
The tape provides a very clear picture of what life is like for Bosnian youths. Even the fact that students are allowed to smoke in class is telling.
"After what these kids have gone through," Haviv says, "the teacher is not going to tell the kids not to smoke."
But given everything these youths face, how relevant are exercises in self-expression? Ultimately, do painting and poetry help young people heal from the effects of war, or are they merely a nice distraction?
Both, says Paramjit Joshi, chairwoman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. Dr. Joshi, who is not affiliated with CMCE, has worked with kids from different ethnic backgrounds during seven visits to Bosnia since 1994.
Joshi believes programs such as Haviv's allow kids to bond through talking about their similar experiences and learn they are not alone. Likewise, sharing their artwork, reading poetry, or acting out a scene they've created about the war allows them to explore new ways of dealing with their circumstances. "They can turn something bad into something good, even if it is in the world of fantasy," she says.
That's especially important when cultural taboos often prevent people from expressing their emotions, says Sasha Toperich, a special envoy to the foreign office at the Bosnian mission at the United Nations.
"Elana Haviv provides a way around that taboo by using art," he says. "And any time kids can express their thoughts, it's a good thing not just for them but all of our society."
Nermina Nuhodzic, a 20-year-old who participated in Haviv's program, puts it another way. "Many things here [in Bosnia] need to be processed, and we are all glad that finally someone cares for us and our dreams, hopes, and fears," she says in an e-mail exchange.
Haviv's goal is for the program to flourish in Bosnia and to change thinking inside the country as well as outside it.
"I hope [it] helps these kids in Bosnia come out of their isolation and for people who view their art to see the consequences of war," she says.