Jody Lynn McBrien has been a lifelong advocate for learning. She served as the Senior Editor of CNN’s education website before being appointed an Assistant Professor of Education at USF Sarasota-Manatee. But McBrien is not just a scholar, she is also a hands-on humanitarian. Driven by a sincere passion to do good, she has taken up an exceptionally noble cause: to bring hope and opportunities to young people who have fled from armed conflicts around the world.
McBrien goes about her aid work in a variety of ways. She conducts international field research and vigorously pursues grants to help adolescent refugees maximize their academic potential. She also employs more artful means. Having accumulated a large number of drawings and paintings by war-affected children, she uses this collection to sensitize the world to the refugee ordeal and the dignity and perseverance of those who’ve survived it.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are currently over 43 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. Almost half of these are minors. The main source countries, all of which can be categorized as “developing,” are Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, DR Congo, Myanmar, Colombia and Sudan. Refugees typically find asylum in neighboring states where they are confined in vile, prison-like camps. Deprived of their human rights, as well as many basic needs, they subsist in dismal conditions. Disease, malnutrition, abuse and rape are rampant. To aggravate matters, more and more children are born into this predicament. Some refugees are escaped former child soldiers who had been forced to commit war crimes by brutal militias.
Repatriating refugees to their homelands is not always a viable solution, especially when the terror and persecution from which they fled still persists. Usually, there is nothing to return to except unemployment, crime, a ruined infrastructure and social unrest. Many refugees therefore remain in protracted exile. Small and ever-shrinking quotas are admitted for permanent resettlement in “third countries” such as Germany, the UK and the US.
Interestingly, it was in Clarkston, Georgia, in 2001, when McBrien was first exposed to refugees. While pursuing her doctorate in comparative and international education at nearby Emory University in Atlanta, Jody volunteered at Refugee Family Services, a social welfare agency. From 2002-05 she served as a tutor and counselor for relocated refugee girls in their early teens.
“At first I thought they seemed happy,” says McBrien. “They didn’t immediately tell me ‘My mom got a limb hacked off’ or ‘My dad bled to death in my arms.’” Jody had to gain the trust of these children and it was a long and delicate process. Eventually she got to know them all well, thanks, in no small part, to the universal language of art. McBrien undertook a self-portrait project, which enabled the girls to safely express their life-story and at the same time experience some healing. The resulting artwork was not as graphically violent as might be expected. Rather than conveying their trauma in an open, straightforward manner, most kids resorted to symbolic, though no less revealing, imagery.
Jasenka, a young Muslim refugee from Bosnia, depicted her face enveloped by layer upon layer of different colors. Underneath, however, her features remained distinctly visible. It seems she was both concealing and asserting her identity. The multiple veils seem to represent the spectrum of roles she needed to play to survive in Bosnia and then assimilate into her new home. Jasenka was resettled in the US at the age of nine after being deported from Germany. Jody takes an almost maternal pride in her. “Jasenka did some outstanding community service work. I nominated her for the Hitachi Foundation’s Yoshiyama Award and she won! She then went on to become a spokesperson for a Darfur aid campaign in Washington, DC, and is now in graduate school.”
Another refugee Jody developed a deep bond with is Kaleh, a Kurdish girl whose entire village in northern Iraq was flattened by Saddam Hussein’s army when she was only three. Kaleh hid in a mountain cave where she suffered frostbite on both feet. Miraculously, she made a full recovery and arrived in the US via Iran and Pakistan. Kaleh may have found a relatively safe host country, but she was greeted with cultural prejudice and outright hate. Kaleh’s schoolmates referred to her as “Hussein’s sister” and called her a “terrorist.” Once she was sent to the principal’s office and reprimanded for refusing to do cartwheels in a skirt. Kaleh withstood the discrimination and has since received a scholarship to attend medical school at Vanderbilt University. “They love to learn,” says McBrien. “If you give a little support, they fly. Both Kaleh and Jasenka are US citizens now and will contribute tremendously to the teaching field and the medical profession.”
McBrien remembers one particular self-portrait which epitomizes the conflict refugee Muslim girls face in the US, especially post-9/11. The artist depicted herself twice on the same page. On the left, she’s dressed in blue jeans and on the right, in a hijab. There are arrows between both sides to suggest how torn she is between her native culture and fitting in.
McBrien worked hard to help “her” refugees integrate into society and find empowerment through education. In 2004 she was honored with Emory University’s Humanitarian Award. Other successes followed, encouraging Jody to commit herself even further. “I wanted to understand more about the refugee experience and go where the journey began.”
In January 2010, McBrien arrived in Buduburam, a refugee camp in Ghana close to the capital Accra. Founded by UNHCR, it currently holds over 20,000 Liberian refugees who fled from a vicious, decade-long civil war that claimed 250,000 lives. The camp is also home to Sierra Leonean and Congolese refugees.
“The conditions are miserable,” says McBrien. “There’s malaria, dysentery, dengue and yellow fever. Eighty percent are unemployed. They live in corrugated metal or concrete structures, lean-tos and one-room shacks. There is no running water, no electricity. The only sanitation are dug outhouses which they have to pay to use. Many are starving. The UN stopped bringing food provisions to urge people to repatriate.”
In effect, the UN is ceasing its relief effort. In June 2010, Buduburam’s status as a “refugee camp” was revoked. It is now known as a “settlement.” Incidentally, refugees are called “internally displaced” when they are still within their native borders while the term “genocide” is used only with the utmost reluctance. Such pedantry over nomenclature may ameliorate statistics, but it cannot minimize what is clearly a crisis on a continental scale.
Across Africa, deadly conflicts rage. Corruption, poverty and illiteracy are ubiquitous. Adequate healthcare is scarce, if nonexistent. “Colonization had kept people down and uneducated for so long,” says McBrien. “Independence meant starting from scratch. There was much confusion, and much brutality.”
Although Liberia was never subjugated by Europeans, its recent history has been bloody. In 1847, it was established as Africa’s first republic by freed American slaves, whose descendents governed over the majority indigenous population until 1980. In a military coup, Sergeant Samuel Doe ousted and executed William Tolbert, the last Amero-Liberian president. Doe’s repressive regime brought economic and political instability. Power struggles with multiple rebel factions escalated into a civil war in 1989, during which Doe himself was executed. Backed by Libya, warlord Charles Taylor emerged as a strongman. In 1997 a peace deal was reached and Taylor became president. His cruel, autocratic rule led to a second civil war in 1999. In 2003, international and domestic pressure forced Taylor into exile. (Currently he is on trial in the Hague for war crimes, having allegedly funded rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone through the sale of diamonds.) An interim government sought to redemocratize Liberia and elections in 2005 brought Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to power. As Africa’s first female president, she wants to rebuild the country with “motherly sensitivity and emotion.” Nevertheless, many Liberian refugees are simply too traumatized to return and await unknown fates in Buduburam.
McBrien was apalled by the horror stories the refugees recounted from various regions. What’s worse, the horror continues unabated. A sick repertoire of atrocities is being enacted under the eyes of the world. Rebel militias routinely conduct terror campaigns against rural populations, sometimes severing limbs to demonstrate their savagery and power. Thousands have been left armless or legless. Some victims are forced to cut off their own body parts and eat them, otherwise they will be killed in even more gruesome ways. Torture and rape are used as weapons of war. Women of entire villages are mercilessly gang-raped for days on end, depriving them of any sense of self-worth. Young girls are abducted and end up as sex slaves and servants. Boys are seized as early as eight years old, drugged to the point of addiction and turned into crazed, machete-wielding child soldiers. They are used as minesweepers or human shields in the front lines. Some kids are ordered to kill or mutilate their own families.
The heinousness of these acts does not demoralize McBrien, on the contrary. “This level of brutality to human beings is what draws me to this work. It’s so painful to me that anyone would have to endure this and be ignored by the world. Somewhere inside me there’s this great care for people who’ve been treated so unfairly and have done nothing to deserve it.” McBrien feels the victims are misunderstood when they’re seen only as sufferers. “They’re not just victims, they are the strongest people in the world, having lived through this.”
In Buduburam, once again, McBrien connected with the young refugees through their art. Despite the dehumanizing effects of war, these children drew and painted with incredible finesse. Art was perhaps their ultimate refuge, their last remnant of humanity. In art, anything is possible. The freedom to dream is absolute. McBrien was often awed by the technique of the work. But what really mattered was the sincerity with which these kids externalized their distress.
Just like in Clarkston, Georgia, there were few depictions of cruelty. McBrien only came across a single picture of a rebel soldier. Instead, there were images of hope, innocence and natural beauty. Some kids painted African paradises, lush landscapes teeming with wildlife. Others painted an “American paradise”, Disneyworld, a testament to how far they’re imagining themselves away. Most frequent, though, were not scenes of fantasy but of simple, peaceful everyday life. By picturing the normality they’d never known, these youths revealed just how unrelentingly harsh their lives were.
In their self-portraits, the kids never looked back, only forward into the future, when their dreams might come true. They envisioned themselves as soccer players, nurses or artists. McBrien became friendly with two teenagers and long-time camp residents, Tom and Philip, who want to become professional painters. Neither had been a child soldier but they had both witnessed atrocities.
Tom Williams is 17 and fled Liberia with his family at the age of seven. He works at a food stall outside camp and relatives abroad occasionally send him money. Even when his parents had nothing to eat, they encouraged his artwork. One of Tom’s self-portraits clearly illustrates his desire to be an artist. He depicts himself sitting at an easel in front of three thatched huts, which he paints with precision. The huts look cozy and inviting, nothing like the shabby shacks in Buduburam. A caption reads “The best thing I like doing is painting.” Apparently, this is an idyll. But there are a few subtle indications that not all is well in this picture within a picture. The dual reality suggests that Tom is distancing himself from his life and surroundings. Oddly, Tom’s shorts are torn at the buttocks and the palm tree growing in the background looks pitifully sad with its bare, drooping fronds. The drawing is signed “Eagle A.” Tom‘s displacement is again evident in the pseudonym he adopted for himself. He calls himself the “Eagle Artist”, an attempt to identify with a symbol of vision and strength, a bird that can soar to safe and lofty heights. But the eagle is also a bird of prey, an inadvertent clue, perhaps, that it is only a short transition from victim to predator.
Another of Tom’s drawings has its title, “Akwaba Wellcom,” written in large blood-dripping letters across the bottom. In the Akan language of Ghana, “akwaaba” means “welcome.” The blood drops may just as well be interpreted as teardrops and could be a sarcastic hint that Tom feels unwanted in Ghana. In the upper right is a traditional West African Adinkra symbol known as Biribi Wo Soro. It resembles a horizontal figure eight with a dash through the middle and it too is crying blood. Next to it, Tom offers an explanation: “This symbol means hope, expecting fortunes from God.” On the left is what might be the object of Tom’s hopes: a fairly realistic, almost idealized rendering of a teenage girl. She holds a food bowl in front of her breasts, containing what is probably fufu, a thick paste made from gourds. With her earrings, beads and spiked braided hair, she looks not only well fed and well off, but strikingly fashionable.
There is also a streak of commercialism in Tom’s work. He has created a large series of paintings of African women that caters to the conventional taste. The figures are highly stylized and wear colorful, decorative costumes. Curiously, they are without hands or feet. Their limbs taper off into sharp points. Whether intentionally or not, such details call to mind the horror of the mass amputations.
Philip Tarley is 15 and also an aspiring artist. He signs his work with his full name, followed by his self-given title, “The Young Artist.” Philip’s father was murdered in Liberia by rebel forces. He lives with his ill and incapacitated mother and two sisters, one of whom is pregnant and unmarried. Philip specializes in picturesque village scenes. One example features a perfectly round, man-made island floating on a lake. The island suggests detachment and isolation. It has three huts on it as well as mooring poles. Around it, fishermen paddle in boats, either casting their nets or retrieving them full of fish. It is a world of plenty.
One of Philip’s self-portraits shows him inside a spare, windowless study. In Ghana, such a room would be oppressively hot. In spite of that, he is calmly and cooly seated at an uncluttered desk which bears the inscription, “Drawing, painting and making research on art are the things that make me happy.” Philip is deeply absorbed in an art history book as if it were the only window to the world he needed. In the background we see samples of his work: a village scene, a self-portrait and a contour drawing of the African continent inside of which is a woman with a fruit basket on her head. An easel holds one of Philip’s signature fishing boat paintings and underneath his colors and brushes are arranged with obsessive neatness. This drawing reveals just how much he cares not just about order but education.
The quiet, studious life Philip longs for might be sneered at by rebellious, thrill-seeking US teenagers. But Philip has never had the benefit of proper schooling. Teachers and textbooks are in short supply in Buduburam. Lessons are learned at the blackboard, through repetition. An internet café outside of camp provides the only available computer access. Online, Tom and Philip can virtually escape anywhere. They’ve become avid internet users and always ensure that their e-mail addresses are prominently displayed on their drawings. When they introduced themselves to McBrien, the first order of business was to exchange e-mails.
After hearing the ambitions of these young refugees, McBrien left Africa with a dream of her own: to build a school there one day. She keeps in frequent e-mail contact with Tom and Philip and brought a large selection of their artwork back to the US. Jody promised to sell it to help them sustain themselves. Under the title “From Machetes to Pencils: The Art of War-Affected Children in Africa,” McBrien will display drawings and paintings from Buduburam along with art by displaced youth from Darfur and northern Uganda. The first exhibition will be held in Sarasota in January 2011 and will be accompanied by a public lecture. All proceeds from sales will be sent to the artists.
McBrien’s next visit to Africa will take her to Uganda in late 2010. Her mission will be to train teachers. Furthermore, she plans to interview young ex-combatants who were forced into service for the Lord’s Resistance Army and to document their socio-economic reintegration. The LRA has waged a prolonged anti-government rebellion and has committed incalculable atrocities in the name of God.
Quite a number of former African child soldiers now live in the US. They are in their teens to early twenties. Understandably, they are not well received. Many Americans consider them war criminals and feel they’re taking away jobs. Even their own native communities reject them. McBrien, however, sympathizes with them. Regardless of the harm they have inflicted, they are, before anything, the harmed. “They carry enormous psychological pressures,” says Jody. “They struggle with severe depression and shame over what they’ve been made to do.”
The world we live in should put all of us to shame, whether we actively or passively contribute to its ills. In this age of information and interdependence, no-one can claim a clear conscience. We will all devour ourselves, unless we understand our oneness and fulfill our responsibility to each other. Jody McBrien has certainly set a fine example.