Iraqi Children Find Solace In Cultural Center A summer camp at the recently reopened center in Baghdad is offering Iraqi children a safe place to learn and play, away from the violence. Through art projects and plays, children try to experience the normalcy of prewar Iraq.
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Iraqi Children Find Solace In Cultural Center

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Iraqi Children Find Solace In Cultural Center

Iraqi Children Find Solace In Cultural Center

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Among the saddest news about the war in Iraq is of the children who've been killed and wounded and born witness to the tragedies of war. In this second in our series on the war's effect on children, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro takes us to a summer camp where children are finding some respite and healing from what they've seen and suffered.

(Soundbite of music)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: To cheery music, half a dozen children rehearse their play. The opening scene is a happy one. The children skip and dance.

(Soundbite of music)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Suddenly, the music changes. Something bad is about to happen. The children react to an imaginary car bomb exploding. While they are just play acting here, many of these kids have experienced the horrors of war first hand. Omar Khalid is 12 years old.

Mr. OMAR KHALID: (Through translator) I saw a man killed in front of me. Every day, we would see gunman riding in their cars, and were afraid they might shoot us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He whispers that his uncle was murdered by a militia. His best friend was kidnapped. For a little boy, he's seen so much death and violence.

Mr. KHALID: (Through translator) We come here to have fun and forget about that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Here is the new children's cultural center in the once violent Baghdad neighbor of Mansour. A hundred children attend the free summer camp where they do theater, practice art and play music for four hours a day, four days a week. It just opened again for the first time since the invasion. Most of the center's children, whose ages range from six to fourteen, don't remember a time before the bombings and the carnage came to Iraq. Their first real memories, they say, are of fear and sadness.

Samar Jasib is 11. She has huge eyes and a poised manner until she talks about her life in Baghdad. Her father, a printer, was kidnapped in 2006. Later, she and her family were forced out of their neighborhood by insurgents. She never feels safe anymore. She says Baghdad has become a city filled with shadows.

Ms. SAMAR JASIB: (Through translator) I have nightmares sometimes, and I have shortness of breath. I often feel panic. I'm always expecting that someone will attack our house at any moment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Her mother, Zahra al Jubouri, runs this summer camp, so she says she knows firsthand how much the children need a respite.

Ms. ZAHRA AL JUBOURI (Coordinator of Summer Camp): (Through translator) We try to ease their pain. The depression suffered by Iraqi children is enormous. Even if we manage to ease a small portion of their sadness, it's something.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Most parents, she says, do not allow their children to play outdoors. For years, many of these kids have been shut up at home after school, unable to go out and visit friends.

Ms. JUBOURI: (Through translator) The Iraqi children have been kept from public parks and outdoor spaces. Families have not taken them out because they're afraid. They've been deprived of theater, the movies, football, everything. I'm trying to make this place fun for them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: With few reminders of the dangers that still lurk outside the doors.

Ms. JUBOURI: (Through translator) I have tried here in all possible ways to ban depictions of guns or tanks. I do not allow children to bring toys in the shape of weapons. I am trying to stop terrorism from infiltrating our children. If they play with those toys now, they could use them for real when they grow up.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the drawing room, young children paint pastoral scenes in electric colors, palm trees, sprouting rainbows, stick figure families standing outside of block-like houses. Eight-year-old Saheel Hassan Abdalmun'am has named her drawing "The Spring."

Ms. SAHEEL HASSAN ABDALMUN'AM: (Through translator) These are children, and they are playing. This is a tree. This is the sun, and this is a house and a man.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Zahra al Jubouri says she wants the children to feel hopeful here.

Ms. ZAHRA AL JUBOURI: (Through translator) I want them to feel optimistic about their future. I want them to draw from their imagination. They can choose the subject that they want and the material, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And many of the works are joyful bursts of self-expression. But the children also get to address their darker experiences.

(Soundbite of music)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back at the rehearsal, the play is ending. After the scene of the car bombing, a young girl comes on stage and draws a question mark. Eleven-year-old Rusol Nawfal says her role is a simple one.

Ms. RUSOL NAWFAL: (Through translator) I draw that in order to ask, why? Why are my friends getting killed? This is a play, but it's also reality because there are children playing on the streets, and car bombs do kill them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She continues, matter-of-factly.

Ms. NAWFAL: (Through translator) We have not enjoyed our childhood. We stay at home and watch cartoons if we have electricity. If we don't have electricity, we either sleep or sit around the house.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She starts to cry and walks away. A teacher tells us her father has just been killed.

(Soundbite of music)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The rehearsal starts again. Rusol is back on stage, drawing in the final scene. The play poses the question, but gives the children no answers.

Lordes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

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