The Iraqi Children's Art Exchange invites children and youth to participate in art-inspired projects. Feeling the urgency of the situation created by wars, sanctions and the ongoing occupation in Iraq, we reach out to children and youth on both sides of the conflict using art as a vehicle to engage them in the universal struggle to create a better, more sustainable and just world. Transcending barriers of language, culture and politics projects are defined and guided by an alternative view, one of international cooperation, understanding and goodwill between people and institutions in the US, Iraq and Jordan.
ICAE encourages and supports drawing, painting and sculpting for the sheer pleasure of it. Beyond that we recognize art as an important languag of childhood and youth, one that offers them an opportunity to speak--to each other and to the wider community-- and to have their views taken seriously.
The Iraqi Children’s Art Exchange creates exhibits. All of the art and photographs from our projects is available for writers and teachers as well as for community, national and international forums and events. Our goal is to bring the ideas, views, concerns, hopes and dreams of children and youth into the critical discusions and decsions of our day.
We imagine a world in which children are valued and where their care, protection and overall well being is a social, economic and political priority. A world where children are respected as people in their own right and accorded the full range of human rights
We work to change the course of the future by advocating for children. We believe that putting children first gives them the physical, emotional and intellectual tools they will need throughout their lifetime to create a life-affirming world where people live sustainable lives, sharing resources and enjoying the fruits of peaceful coexistence.
We imagine a world where actions on behalf of children and youth match the lofty rhetoric of policy makers. We challenge those in power to take the needs of children and youth into serious consideration, to respect and listen to their views and opinions, and to include them in conversations on matters both big and small that involve and affect them.
We envision a world where individuals, institutions and policy makers actively support the full range of children's rights guaranteed in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We challenge community, national and international leaders and organizations to reorder their priorities, committing their political and financial resources to create a world fit for children. This world, as envisioned in 1990 when the CRC was ratified, will lower poverty rates, provide universal access to child and maternal health care, nutrition, and education, and guarantee protection for children during armed conflict and other difficult circumstances.
The Beginning of the Art Exchange, 2001
Waverly, Deerfield, MA, 2001
In the fall of 2000, two women from The Northampton Committee to Lift the Sanctions on Iraq - Kathleen Winkworth and I - signed onto a humanitarian delegation taking medical supplies to Iraq. We developed our own project inviting children in our community to draw and paint pictures for us to take to children in Iraq. We raised money for art supplies and traveled to Baghdad in January, 2001, taking more than 400 pictures and about $400.00 worth of art supplies - crayons, markers, paint and paper with us. People in Baghdad called us "the women with the colors."
The bulk of the supplies and pictures were left for children at an elementary school; the rest we took to children on the cancer ward at Al-Mansour Pediatric Hospital in Baghdad.
Ali Jassim, Al-Mansour Pediatric
Hosp., Baghdad, 2001
There, with the help of Drs. Ali Abbas and Salma Haddad, we went from bed to bed meeting the children, distributing the supplies and giving each child a picture from a child in the U.S.A. The Iraqi children used the supplies we gave them to make a picture for us to bring back to the USA.
When we returned to the states, we gave each child who had donated a picture, a picture in return. This is how the child-to-child exchange began; the project is documented from the beginning with photographs I took of children both here and in Iraq.
The Art Exchange creates a human connection and context - giving children a glimpse of the culture and lives of the children on the other side of the exchange. There are similarities: I like to play soccer, too; and obvious differences, one being the level of suffering of children in Iraq. The art project enables children in the USA to begin to grapple, in their own way, with the unsettling notion that innocent people - even children - suffer in times of conflict and war.
Children are the future; we have to include them in our struggle to create a better, more peaceful and just world. Engaging them in this kind of child-to-child diplomacy is a good first step.
The Art Exchange Project in Context: 2001
Iraq and Al-Mansour Pediatric Hospital
From Northampton, MA 2001 "It's raining medicine! Joy!"
Iraq was, for the most part, "closed down" in 2001 as a result of the UN Sanctions; trade, travel and even the exchange of information and ideas with the outside world was extremely limited. Medicines and medical equipment, books, even medical text books, were sanctioned along with all the art supplies we carried to the country.
Dr. Salma, the doctor with whom I worked on both visits to Iraq, arrived at Al-Mansour Children's Hospital in 1990, shortly before the first Gulf War; since then she and her staff had treated and cared for an ever-increasing number of young leukemia and cancer patients with ever-dwindling medical supplies and equipment.
By the time I arrived, in January 2001, I could see that the hospital was barely a shell of what it had been. And outside the hospital, in the city of Baghdad and in towns and villages across Iraq, a humanitarian crisis had developed.
The bombing campaigns of the Gulf War had caused significant and widespread damage to the infrastructure of the country, destroying roads, factories and office buildings, medical clinics, houses and schools. The electric grid and telecommunication systems were seriously damaged, as were the multi-purpose dams that generated power and controlled irrigation, water treatment and purification. A March 20 report from the UN mission sent to assess the post-war damage read, in part: "...Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated to a preindustrial age, but with all the disabilities of post-industrial dependency on an intensive use of energy and technology."
Miran Jameel, Al-Mansour Pediatric Hospital,
The UN Sanctions remained in place for nearly thirteen years after the war. The political wrangling of the parties involved and the vast bureaucracy set up to monitor and enforce the sanctions made recovery from the devastation nearly impossible, and hindered the efforts of Iraqis and international agencies to repair or improve the situation.
Unable to sustain itself economically, Iraq saw its per-capita GNP fall from over $3,000 to under $500 in nine years, and as widespread poverty set in, the humanitarian crisis grew. By the mid-nineties, UNICEF and other reputable agencies on the ground were reporting a great deal of suffering, disease and death among the most vulnerable elements of the society: women, children and the elderly. According to a report issued by UNICEF in 2001, and based on the Under Five Mortality Rate (U5MR), the overall well being of children in Iraq declined more than that of children in any other country in the world in the decade 1990-2000. The figure was -160%. The next highest negative figure, -74%, was for children in Botswana.
The once highly rated Iraqi hospitals were unable to meet the needs of this increasingly vulnerable population. In 1998 the WHO found a "near-breakdown of the health care system" saying it was "reeling under the pressure of being deprived of medicine, other basic supplies and spare parts."
Return to Baghdad, December, 2003 - January, 2004
Rasmiya, Al-Mansour Pediatric Hospital,
Al-Mansour Pediatric Hospital, 2004
I returned to Baghdad in mid-December, 2003, spending three weeks living in a rented house just outside the Green Zone with Kathy Kelly and two other members of Voices in the Wilderness, a Chicago-based group. Although the war in Iraq had technically "ended", chaos and violence continued; life was extremely precarious and full of challenges for Iraqis. Electricity was in short supply, sometimes we would have only four hours a day, and those not consecutive. There was a serious gas shortage, cars and people waited in lines for eight to ten hours outside stations--clogging up the roads and taking time away from jobs. If you couldn't wait, you could spend two or three times the price, and buy gas from informal venders that were all over Baghdad.
The long months of war and occupation in Iraq made tracking children, or any civilians, more difficult. No one was talking about the 5-7000 children who'd been dying every month under sanctions. Indeed, one got the impression that things were actually improving in Iraq. I knew it would be impossible for one woman, on her own to find the answer to any question ...but for my own information I wanted to go back to the hospital I had worked with in 2001. I wanted to ask the same doctor, or any doctor or anybody: about the children... those thousands of children who were sick and dying. Who's tracking the children.
And so, I went back to Al-Mansour Pediatric Hospital with new art materials, and I was extremely fortunate to reconnected with Dr. Salma and Rasmiya, the head nurse on the children's cancer ward. Once again, I went from bed-to-bed giving out supplies and asking children to draw pictures for me to take back to America.
There was a long, pregnant pause when I asked Dr. Salma my question about the thousands of children who were no longer mentioned in the media--the missing victims of sanctions, war and occupation. Things are going very slowly she told me, and even in January, there was no new ministry of health. There was no way to track children with cancer and leukemia, systems had broken down, records were destroyed and missing. There was no organization to put these things back in place. At one point, she attended an international conference where everyone agreed that the first step should be a country-wide assessment. But, she said, no one agreed to come to Iraq because of security reasons; no one came. And this is the tragic rub, I would say, for me and other activists or humanitarian agencies. Because in order to draw attention to the innocent civilians and children who are dying in Iraq we need reliable and credible information. If nobody is monitoring them, if nobody is counting and reporting on the number of children who are sick and dying, Then the children--and everyone else--is essentially lost, they're invisible, they're disappeared as if they never existed And when I said this to Dr. Salma, she said it wasn't just the children, but that everyone was lost in Iraq.
Al-Gazolia Refugee Camp, 2004
Sometimes, other doctors and mothers on the ward confronted me: things were so dire, what could this art project possibly accomplish for Iraq and Iraqis? Using postcards created from the art and photographs from my first visit, I showed them how I was using the faces and art of the children to bring attention to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the country.
On my last day visiting the ward, Rasmiya, the head nurse gave me a ring. It has been described by a jeweler as an "art ring"--having a stone in a unique setting. I resisted the gift; this was a humble woman with very few possessions. She had never married, and lived in a room on the campus of the hospital complex. Everything had been stolen, she said, during the invasion. But, she had this ring, and she wanted me to keep in so that I and others in American wouldn't forget about her and the other Iraqis suffering under the weight of the violence and uncertainty of the occupation.
Al-Gazolia Refugee Camp, 2004
One day, I was invited to join a group of doctors on a visit to Al-Gazolia Refugee Camp in Baghdad; they went weekly to provide medical care and consultation for children living there.
More than two thousand men, women and children made homeless by the war and occupation had moved into the former site of Udday Hussein's chicken farm. As children came to the makeshift clinic with their families to see the doctors, I gave them art materials-- crayons, paints and paper- and invited them to make pictures for me to take back to America. It was a beautiful, sunny and mild winter day in Iraq. Women spread out carpets and blankets on the ground, and soon there were thirty or forty children splayed out in front of me painting and drawing.