Tuesday afternoon 3:15pm found me trudging through soft piles of sand in the artsy section of Al Qouz. I was making my way toward the Jamjar Gallery to volunteer for START’s workshop with special needs children. Soon enough I spotted a small signboard, hung up against a typical Al Qouz container style building that simply said, “thejamjar”.
The bare white exterior didn’t prepare me for the splash of color inside. The ambience was chill. A spacious room with bold statements of creativity everywhere you turned. From the shelf that contained all the well-used brushes, squeezed up bottles of paint, canvas strewn casually across the floor, to the bright reception area and the easels dotted with every color and it’s combination that you could imagine – everything looked like art.
START’s workshop supervisor, Mahbouba, greeted me with a big warm hug. START is an amazing non-profit organization that uses the universal language of art to heal, educate and enrich the skills and opportunities of children in India and some of the poorest areas of the Middle East. Here in the UAE, START works in collaboration with centers and runs well-planned art workshops for kids with special needs.
Mahbouba introduced me to Daniela, a soft-spoken artist who was volunteering, and Sarah, one of the youth attending the workshop. Sarah made me feel at home instantly with her friendly banter and we soon established a rapport. It made perfect sense that when it was time to assign a volunteer to each student; Sarah and me were going to work together.
As we waited, another artist volunteer, Ling walked in, soon followed by our second student for the evening, Yasser. Yasser has a speech impairment, the sweetest smile and is extremely enthusiastic about painting.
As a volunteer, I was supposed to assist Sarah with the painting process – but it was soon clear that this was going to be more of a heartwarming chat and tons of fun. We donned our black aprons that were smeared with colorful blotches and pretty puddles of paint, dipped our brushes and began getting our hands dirty.
Each workshop follows a lesson plan that builds on previous classes, to make sure that the students are constantly growing and moving toward specific goals. Today we were going to transfer a geometric pattern already completed by the kids on paper, onto a large square canvas. This allowed the children to apply what’s on paper to a larger surface area, explore shapes, play with colors and get to experience the sheer joy that is a big, gooey, blob of paint splashed across a stark white canvas.
Sarah has a hearing impairment and uses hearing aids. She’s smart, thoughtful and loves bright colors. Both of us giggled and laughed as we discussed our love of boat rides, which colors to use and whether the tulips should have curvy lines or straight ones.
Every few minutes, Mahbouba would pop over and give us tips – “Use bright colors! That’s perfect. Don’t worry about being perfect; just let it look raw.” She also made sure to keep connecting what we were doing to the previous class, because each workshop builds on what was learnt before.
A little distance away, Yasser was working with Ling, and they were creating what looked like a very picturesque scene from old Dubai, with palm trees, a blue mosque and old buildings. Yasser was loving it; he would get up and dance around every few minutes to express his excitement.
All the while around us, there was soothing music and comforting sounds of conversations, laughter and painting. Sarah summed it up when she took a deep breath and declared, “It’s the best feeling in the world when there’s music and I’m painting and nothing else is going on.” Yep, I couldn’t have said it any better.
I witnessed the ability of art to dissolve barriers first hand. Sarah and me didn’t ask each other even once what the other does, where they work, or what they studied. We were too busy asking questions that truly mattered; what makes you happy, why strokes of paint are so relaxing and why the Abra Creekside is the best place in Dubai. We connected. Too soon, her mom was there to pick her up and we ended with a hug and promise to meet again next week – we had a painting to finish and we were going to do it together!
Before I wrap this up, I must tell you a little bit more about Mahbouba, START’s Workshops supervisor: because she’s amazing. Mahbouba drives all the way from Sharjah for these workshops and her love for the kids is as palpable as her knowledge of how to get them pumped up and excited about doing art, all the while ensuring that they are learning something new each time.
During our conversation after the workshop, I asked what motivates her. Her answer was, “The feeling of making a difference without expecting anything in return.” Boom. It’s as simple as that. She summed up what volunteering is really all about.
START believes in the power of art to heal. They started in 2007 and now work in Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, India and the UAE. Working with refugee, orphaned and special needs children, they invite artists to collaborate with the kids and develop in-depth lesson plans that will spark their imagination and curiosity.
The programme seeks to educate and empower the younger generation by giving them a voice through the expression of art, engaging them with their communities and their peers, and by teaching them a sense of self-worth.