Americans, Iraqis communicate through art

Jackie Burrell
Contra Costa Times
August 3, 2007

The children paint quietly, their attention rapt as they fill in white space with colorful swirls and embellishments. The outline of a young man strides past tempera palm trees as music blazes from his painted boom box, and a brick house takes sturdy form, as Jasmine Ho, an Alameda 11-year-old, dabs peach paint into tiny window frames on a mural that began half a world away.

From the war-torn Middle East to a loft like gallery in Oakland, it has been a long journey for these carefully adorned swaths of paper. On Thursday afternoon, the creativity of the young Iraqi refugees who began this artwork mingled with the imagination of East Bay schoolchildren as they finished the murals at Oakland's Museum of Children's Art.

"We're taking a moment to make something, a gift of peace," Orinda architect Lara Dutto told the young painters. "It's almost like you're writing a letter, but you're doing it with art. And we'll send them back to (the camps) for you."

Thursday's activities were part of Project Farasha -- Arabic for "butterfly" -- Dutto's Orinda-based children's art exchange based on the idea that art can transcend language, borders and geopolitics, even in times of war.

These collaborative murals and about 250 small-scale drawings and paintings, all created by children in Iraqi refugee camps in Jordan, came to the Bay Area by way of Massachusetts' Iraqi Children's Art Exchange, which provides art supplies to children in the Middle East, then brings their work back to the States to inspire American children. The resulting collaborative creations are exhibited here, then returned to the refugee camps to complete the circle.

Dutto's Project Farasha brings the concept to the West Coast. She has spent the past several months sending individual art exchange packets from the Children's Art Exchange to East Bay children who want to create art for Iraqi children, and organizing the events at the museum and, next month, at San Francisco's Arab Cultural and Community Center.

To the grown-ups involved, the project revolves around the desperate realities of children's lives in a war-torn region. The United Nations' refugee agency estimates that a quarter of a million school-aged Iraqi refugees are in Jordan alone. But just 4 percent of them are actually going to school, and the Jordanian government -- like those of neighboring countries -- has been overwhelmed.

Project Farasha and the Iraqi Children's Art Exchange, which was founded by Massachusetts preschool teacher Claudia Lefko in 2001, are trying to raise support for a small arts school for refugees that opened in Amman, Jordan, last fall. They also encourage connections between children on opposite sides of the globe.

"Everyone's feeling like they just want to do something, no matter how small," Dutto said. "It's apolitical. It's about children. It's about art."

But to the children who filled the museum Thursday, it was all about art. And what struck them -- and the grown-ups who flitted around refilling paintpots and replenishing sprinkles at the butterfly cookie "painting" station -- were the similarities in what children create. Despite all the differences in language and culture, the paintings depicted the same sweet butterflies, flitting fish and happy little towns.

"Maybe two out of 250 had scenes of war," said Dutto. "I think all kids want to draw rainbows and sunshine."

For the youngest artists, the art exchange was nothing more than painting fun and tasty treats. But Orinda second-grader Matthew Mariani found a kindred spirit in the creator of one drawing.

"I like reptiles too," he said, admiring his Iraqi counterpart's cheery turtle. "I'm going to draw a lake or a swamp, with a little rock with a turtle."

And some children, including Jasmine Ho and her friends, who painstakingly transformed a bare-bones mural into a riot of color, were very aware of the refugee crisis in the Middle East.

"I feel really bad for (the refugee children)," she said, as she painted small beaming faces into the windows of her brick house. "I'm trying to make them feel better."

Reach Jackie Burrell at 925-977-8568 or


Project Farasha, an Iraqi-American children's art-exchange project, comes to the Arab Cultural and Community Center in San Francisco on Sept. 1. All murals and artwork will be displayed at the Museum of Children's Art in Oakland after Project Farasha's Oct. 13 art auction and gala, which benefits the Webdah School and Family Center for Iraqi refugees in Jordan.

MORE INFORMATION: For more information about the art workshop, gala and museum exhibit or to request an art exchange kit visit or e-mail