Art as a Passport for Learning and Healing in Refugee Camps

Refugee camps are not known as places that foster creativity, nor are they known as places that encourage therapeutic expression and learning. Deeply traumatized people who have fled unimaginable horrors and sought sanctuary within the strict confines of the international forced migration management system, live, for the most part, on standby as they wait to resume their lives elsewhere. With the average length of stay for refugees in exile being 20 years (UNHCR 2023), most languish in desperate conditions, as they try to contend with the meager rations afforded to them by host countries and camp authorities. Although basic services such as primary education provision are available to children growing up in these camps, within the official infrastructure of the system governing their lives, little emphasis is placed on the importance of cultural and personal expression and the catharsis it can bring,

As the global migration crisis tears at its seams, new ways of doing things have never been more important. Education, while offering one of the few real and lasting solutions to potentially mitigate the dangers and devastation of a life in exile for the world’s 43.3 million displaced children (UNICEF 2023), has the capacity to do a lot more if enabled to do so. Although most refugees live in cities outside camps and have access to educational opportunities and the various benefits that education offers in the same way as other people living in their host country, the over 6.6 million people who exist in refugee camps around the world (UNHCR 2023) often do not. For the millions of children caught up in refugee camps that are designed to contain them rather than help them flourish, education is often their only hope. Despite class size regularly exceeding 90 students, woefully under-resourced classrooms, and often exhausted teachers who struggle to deliver the basics in reading, writing, and arithmetic, education in the camps somehow provides a mainstay of stability, opportunity, and hope to children there. Given the right resources, education can live up to its promises and, if done right, can deliver so much more than it currently does to open a world of opportunities for those who really need it.

In the education systems of most countries across the world, the benefits of creative expression and the use of art as a pedagogical tool are long known for helping children to process their surroundings and encouraging them to learn (Yu and Nagai 2020). For the millions of children who pass through schools in refugee camps, it is seldom the case, as art and creative expression are frequently viewed as a luxury that cannot be afforded to them. By ignoring the potential of art as a creative medium of learning, refugee camp authorities and education providers operating in these spaces not only greatly underestimate its use as an educational tool but ignore a valuable resource that could help millions of children heal from the vast array of traumas they have experienced in their young lives.


Art as a way of connecting and learning

The power of art to connect and transmit meaning has long been known. From the earliest shamanic and symbolistic cave paintings to current-day high-definition advertising campaigns, art has an illustrious history of bringing people together and communicating meaning (Morriss-Kay 2010). It is a defining culture maker and marker and is deeply embedded in our psyches as essential to defining the human experience. As young children, we learn to navigate the world around us through self-expression and to manifest that self-expression through various art forms. From an early age, play—and therefore self-expression—allows children to internalize and reflect their world and in turn to scaffold the building of smaller knowledge bases into larger ones through processes such as emulation and innovation that spur on cognitive development (Vygotsky 1978). Despite scholarly advancement in animal studies in recent years, manifestations of this cognitive development are generally understood to be a defining separative characteristic of the human species from the rest of the animal world, at least from an anthropocentric point of view (Braddock 2016). In short, it is what makes us human.

Art’s ability to bind us to places and people is perhaps what makes it so fundamental to the human experience. This connection provides security and reassurance so that the existential can be affirmed and our individualism and connection to others can be something greater than our own mere existence (Dutt 2020). Furthermore, art’s ability to enable us to problem-solve, transmit meaning, and learn from each other solidifies this bond to make us what we are and who we want to become (Rymanowicz 2015).


Art as therapy

With its power to bring the body and the mind together, artistic expression can enable us to understand our situation and what has led us to our current position in life—whether good or bad­—and to process our feelings, emotions, and behaviors (Mastandrea et al. 2019). In the social world, it can be a catalyst for change; and in the private world, it can open the door for the introspection and the meta-cognition that people need for healing and surmounting psychological difficulties (Czamanski-Cohen and Weihs 2016).

The connection between art and well-being is long established. There is ample evidence that participating in artistic activities, either as creators or observers, positively enhances our moods, emotions, and other psychological states that are central to our psychological and social well-being and development (Stuckley and Nobel 2010). Despite such centrality of art to the human experience, its therapeutic application is often reserved for those whose economic, political, and geographical position affords them the time, space, and status to benefit from it. As with access to other services, poverty and inequality are the two greatest factors excluding most of the world’s population from life-enhancing experiences such as access to therapeutic healthcare (Better Help 2022).

For millions of people around the world, whose living conditions and life experiences are difficult, to say the least, healthcare in all its forms is either not available or prohibitively expensive. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), roughly half the world’s population lacks access to essential healthcare (Moore 2021). For displaced children caught up in the strictures of the global forced migration management system and living in extreme conditions of deprivation, this is acutely evident. Refugee camps provide a low threshold for the basic necessities their inhabitants need to survive—access to health care being a case in point.

While access to healthcare was first articulated in the WHO’s constitution in 1946 and has been reiterated in various subsequent international policies, agreements, and legal frameworks over the years (WHO 2008), within the international forced migration management system this access is extremely limited (Daynes 2016). Various reasons, ranging from lack of resources to most people within the system being located in remote, inaccessible places, contribute to refugees facing greater barriers to healthcare than their non-refugee counterparts (Adler, Price, and Taylor 2008). Currently, it is estimated that there are close to 103 million forcibly displaced people around the world; 32.5 million of these people are refugees and 4.9 million are asylum seekers, roughly 40 percent of whom are children under 18 (UNHCR 2022). As mentioned, most of these people live in urban areas and are classed as urban refugees whose welfare is generally under the remit of the host country in which they reside and where they have access—to varying degrees—to the goods and services generally available in that country. Under the mandate of the United Nations’ refugee agency, the UNHCR, 6.6 million refugees and asylum seekers live in what is termed “planned and managed” camps or “self-settled” camps (UNHCR 2022b).

Refugee camps are designed to be temporary spaces that provide the basic goods and services their inhabitants need to survive before returning home, or for very few of them, before being resettled overseas (UNHCR 2020b). While the design of official refugee camps may be for temporary stays, the reality for most residents is very different. In fact, refugees living in camps stay there for an average of 20 years (UNHCR 2023), with many people spending their entire childhood and adolescence stuck in limbo, as they wait for their lives out of “temporary” exile to begin (Majok 2019). Refugee camps are invariably characterized by overcrowding, dilapidated conditions, and a lack of basic goods and services; they are designed to keep refugees alive rather than allowing them to live (Cullen Dunne 2015). Inevitably, people spend their days waiting for meager food rations to sustain themselves and their families, working for camp authorities and humanitarian organizations who govern their lives, navigating the forced migration management system bureaucracy, and, for some lucky few, attending rare educational programs within the confines of the camps (Carron 2019).

The detrimental conditions of refugee camps have long been recognized by scholars who study them. Human rights abuses abound; threats of violence are ever present; poverty and deprivation are pervasive; and the rights to work, study, move, speak, and assemble are heavily restricted (Bender 2021). Children living in refugee camps face unique challenges in relation to malnutrition, exclusion from key developmental services, loss of childhood, and other stressors (Concern 2020). These challenges are further compounded by the often extreme traumatic experiences they and/or their families have lived through. While psychosocial support has been increasingly pushed along through buzzwords such as “resilience” in international development policy papers and official forced migration management reports in recent years, little evidence exists to show that adequate measures are in place to assist good childhood development practices within refugee camps (Alfadhli and Drury 2016).

For the millions of people who live in refugee camps across the world, the basic necessities they are afforded rarely extend beyond the provision of rudimentary food rations, shelter, and basic medical care. Education and access to it provide a clear example of the limits refugees in camps face in receiving necessary services. Although education is a basic human right (UNHCR 2021), only 68 percent of refugee children in refugee camps attend primary school, compared to 91 percent worldwide. The figure for secondary education is even less, at 34 percent, compared to 84 percent worldwide (UNHCR 2021). Overcrowded classrooms, lack of funding, inadequately trained teachers, and a host of other barriers coalesce to deny this very basic human right, which most of the rest of the world enjoys (Crea et al. 2022). Ostensibly, the responsibility for education provision lies with the state in which the refugee camp is hosted, but the reality in developing countries (and increasingly in developed countries) is that the assistance of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations (IOs) is fundamental in the provision of even the most basic level of education. In the vast majority of cases, the lion’s share of education oversight falls to the camp management authorities—the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) (Dryden-Petersen 2016).


How has art been used in refugee contexts?

Art is an integral part of refugee lives, contexts, and conversations around the world. Primarily, it takes the form of aesthetic activism that raises awareness for refugee issues and fosters discussions on the subject among various stakeholders such as advocacy groups and international agencies involved in the international forced migration management system (Garfield 2018). Notable examples of this activism include regular exhibitions organized by refugee “management” agencies at renowned art showcases such as Art Basel in Switzerland and other events around the world to mark occasions such as World Refugee Day. Second, with an increased emphasis being placed on mental well-being in many parts of the world, art is now regularly utilized as a psychosocial add-on to services provided to forcibly displaced people (WHO 2022). There are many examples of psychosocial programs utilizing art as a conduit for improving mental well-being among refugees and other forcibly displaced populations in refugee camps and other settings. For example, the European Union has led the way in terms of integrating art into teaching practices at schools to better enhance the integration and mental well-being of refugee children. Various projects such as the European Union’s Schools Education Gateway webinar series and the European Toolkit for Schools have been initiated to provide learning opportunities and resources for teachers to engage with and enable their students to better cope with the realities of their lives in exile (Schools Education Gateway 2022).

Across Europe, the response by front line NGOs and advocates working with refugee children from Syria, and more recently Ukraine, has been one that embraces the use of art as a therapeutic and pedagogical tool to assist children in their recovery from the many traumas they have encountered. Successful examples include the Moldova Project and Plan International delivering art therapy activities to Ukrainian children in the refugee receiving centers of Chisinau, and the Red Pencil, The Spanish Red Cross, and Alta Mane delivering art therapy sessions to children in Málaga who have experienced the perils of crossing the Mediterranean in search of sanctuary.

With vast resources at their disposal, the European Union and the rest of the Western world are clearly in a better financial situation to support pedagogical initiatives for refugees than are the poorer countries who host most of the world’s displaced people. However, this lack of resources has not limited the good will of artists and humanitarian practitioners working with refugee children all over the developing world to help them process and cope with some of the trauma, stress, and anxiety they face. The Za’atari Project art therapy program in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, the Hands On Art Workshops in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, and the Kick Start Art community group’s art classes in Mae Sot, Thailand are only a few of the many innovative and highly effective projects improving refugee and displaced children’s lives in developing countries.


The power and potential of transformative education in refugee camps

Since 2017, I have been immersed in refugee education and development projects in Kenya. Initially, I organized, implemented, and managed European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) accredited university programs for the University of Geneva in Switzerland in Kakuma refugee camp from 2017 to 2021. Since then, I have worked on various refugee-centered development projects with my former students and colleagues in the camp, through my work at Maynooth University and Dublin City University in Ireland. In Kakuma, education opportunities for young people are in short supply, but I have seen firsthand what they can yield when done right. For example, having embraced the knowledge that they gained through the University of Geneva’s human rights law, medicine, and health care courses, my former students set up a hugely successful farming project, raising fish and growing vegetables in an effort to combat malnutrition and empower refugees to steer their own development pathways. The project, Vijana Twaweza Youth Club, won the World Food Program’s 2021 Young Innovators Award for East Africa and, in my view, is a testament to the power of the transformative education practices we utilized in the University of Geneva’s ECTS accredited courses in the camp.

Unfortunately, in refugee camps education opportunities are seldom available and rarely as transformative as were the University of Geneva’s courses in Kakuma. This is especially the case in education at the primary and secondary level. Of the camp’s estimated 200,000 residents, over half are children, and research carried out in 2020 estimated that up to 64 percent of these children do not attend primary school in the camp (Mendenhall 2020). Kakuma’s overcrowded classrooms (classroom size regularly exceeds 90 students) are poorly resourced, and teachers have often received little or no training (VSO 2019). In addition to these challenges, Kakuma’s classrooms are overwhelmingly populated by children who have experienced excessive violence, disruption, trauma, and harm throughout their lives. While attending school may provide these children a form of hope for the future and a sense of stability in their troubled lives, classroom practices such as harsh corporal punishment (which is widespread in Kakuma) disrupt and further harm their mental and behavioral development (Betancourt and Khan 2008; Mendenhall 2020).

Kakuma refugee camp is serviced by 21 primary schools and five secondary schools (UNHCR 2017). For those children who manage to navigate the difficult conditions within the schooling system in the camp, education is limited to rote learning of the official Kenyan curriculum, which the camp’s schools are obliged to follow. Primary school lasts for eight years, is provided free of charge, and is “compulsory.” Secondary school is also free, is not compulsory, and lasts for four years. The curriculum focuses on mathematics, English, and various vocational subjects aimed both at pupils who will only complete their primary education and then enter the labor market and those pupils who will continue on to higher education (Nuffic 2015). At the end of their eight years in primary school, students sit for the state Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exams in Kiswahili, English, mathematics, science and agriculture, and social studies. At the end of four years of secondary school, students sit for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exam in mathematics, English, Kiswahili, and a range of non-compulsory subjects, depending on the offerings of the individual school they attended (Nuffic 2015). Following a decision of the Kenyan government in January 2017, this curriculum (eight years in primary school and four years in secondary school) is currently being phased out in favor of a new 2-6-6-3 structure (two years in pre-primary school, six years in primary school, three years in lower secondary school, three years in upper secondary school, and three years in higher education) in an effort to align more closely with Kenya’s Vision 2030 plan for development, which aims to promote competency-based learning (Aga Khan University, 2019).

The strictures of the Kenyan school curriculum and the multitude of pedagogical barriers present in the camp leave little space for in-class psychosocial pastoral care or for an exploration of the potential benefits creative expression fosters. Although access to education is recognized in the international legal framework as a basic human right and education for refugee children is generally recognized as being especially important to create a sense of security and hope and as the most important protective factor in their lives (Bruijin 2009; Prickett et al. 2013), the reality for children growing up in places like Kakuma refugee camp is altogether different. Corporal punishment, resource incapacity, structural discrimination, etc. keep many children out of the classroom and result in their severe underperformance (Bellino and Dryden-Petersen 2018). For deeply traumatized children in most refugee camps’ classrooms, social taboos against acknowledging and treating mental health issues add another layer of difficulty (Golden 2017). A study carried out by Edna Kisombe in 2020 on the psychological health of children in Kakuma refugee camp concluded that most children there are deeply traumatized and suffer from psychological stress symptoms such as depression, irritability, lack of concentration, and withdrawal (Kisombe 2020). As counseling was most accessible for children in the camp via their schools, the research recommended that teachers should receive adequate training on how to interact with the children, that more classrooms needed to be built to overcome the problems associated with overcrowding, and that counseling should become part of the curriculum (Kisombe 2020).


What can and should be done about education in refugee camps?

Evidently, refugee camps in Kenya exist in their own context and face their own particular issues. However, given the similar issues Europe must confront regarding increasing populations of people seeking asylum there, commonalities arise that should be acknowledged and from which Europeans can learn. How we deal with the pedagogical barriers displaced children face is a case in point. While the ever present problem of resource shortages threatens action in many development plans, it does not have to block new ways of thinking and teaching. The incorporation of art in the classroom as a pedagogical tool is one such feasible intervention. Although it would require a longer-term vision of and increased investment in education as a key to development from camp authorities, host countries, and the international community more broadly, the potential of art education to enhance learning and provide solace for millions of children far outweighs its cost. This most basic of steps toward a more just system could begin with the training of teachers (and in some cases their re-training) so they understand and use art as a pedagogical tool in their classrooms. It may not appear obvious to an audience unfamiliar with refugee camps, but any pedagogical innovation introduced in such contexts needs to be matched with the provision of basic resources such as paper, pens, etc. for school children.

As mentioned earlier, there is no shortage of innovative and effective use of art for therapeutic and educational projects operating in refugee spaces around the world. In addition, many organizations provide training to teachers who work with refugees; and, in my experience, there is a massive amount of willingness amongst academics and development practitioners to share their skills and contribute to development through education. What is missing in the equation is a formal embrace of the power of art as an efficient pedagogical and therapeutic tool for teachers struggling in a system that often works against the best interests of their students.

As Europe grapples with its responsibilities toward increasing numbers of refugees and countries like Kenya grapple with their plans to raise living standards, the large population of displaced children needs to be kept in mind. We must consider the often extreme psychosocial pressures these children face; moreover, in my view, the specificities of schools operating within the confines of “contained” camps like Kakuma or refugee receiving towns on the Mediterranean coastline need particular attention. Inevitably, as with most development-related issues, little will change for the better unless we start to do things differently. We, in Europe and other developed places around the world, have much to share with the displaced and disadvantaged who have been crying out for our help for years. With the exponential growth of displacement at our doorstep, we also have much to learn. To even begin to come to grips with this major challenge, we need to do things differently. What a better time to start?


Paul O’Keeffe is Assistant Professor of Global Challenges at Dublin City University. He has extensive experience in researching, developing, and enabling education and development projects in refugee camps in East Africa and the Middle East.



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Published on November 21, 2023.


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