Children in the UNICEF art therapy program at Lake Chad refugee camp. 

 Hearing the CNN reports as the world awaited to see which terror group would claim responsibility, reminded me of watching the news that September morning when I first learned what terrorism was, and I waited in uncertainty for my aunt to come back from the World Trade Center. Growing up in New York post-911 has left deep emotional scars that are often hard for me to put into words. It naturally made me turn to music and to my writing, something I took up more after 9/11 to help manage stress.

However, now terrorism has affected more than just my home and my country. It has gone beyond isolated incidents in a single country, to many acts of terror in three nations under the hands of ISIS and Boko Haram are reaching more children than just myself. Boko Haram, in the midst of the ISIS coordinated attacks in Paris also attacked the city of Yola in Nigeria killing 32 people.

Boko Haram, which translates to “western education forbidden,” began in 2002 in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, the poorest and least developed corner of Africa’s most populous country Nigeria. Its founder was a self-taught, fundamentalist preacher, Mohammed Yusuf, who believed that secular learning had become an instrument for Nigeria’s corrupt elite to abuse power and resources. When he was assassinated by the Nigerian government, his followers of 5,000 mobilized and began terrorizing Nigeria and now neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Over 25,000 people have died at the rebels’ hands (to give a comparison, ISIS has killed 1,000 [outside of Syria and Iraq] since their founding). UNICEF reported that of the 1.4 million displaced by Boko Haram in Nigeria, 1.2 million of these are children and half of this number are children under the age of 5.


A refugee camp in neighboring country of Cameroon. 

The attack in Yola is a sign of Boko Haram’s rising momentum and the government’s failure to quell Boko Haram’s violence. Boko Haram most notably (or notoriously) kidnapped 272 girls from a rural all-girls Chibok Government Secondary School, leading to international support with the hashtag #BringOurGirlsBack. Two months prior to this they targeted an all-boys school, burning all 59 boys alive inside of their dormitory. The Nigerian President-elect Muhammadu Buhari a year after the girl’s kidnapping made a statement saying, “We do not know the state of their health or welfare, or whether they are even still together or alive. As much as I wish to, I cannot promise that we can find them.”

Last fall, Boko Haram imposed sharia law 50 miles outside of once secure Yola, burning books, kidnapping women, recruiting young men and executing those who resisted. 400,000 people fled to Yola during this time, the site of the most recent attack.

Many of the refugees have fled to neighboring Cameroon and Chad where they face food insecurity (some not even receiving food), high rate of disease, and continued threats from terrorist groups. In one refugee camp near Lake Chad, Doctors Without Borders began working with over 500 children on intensive therapy, using art therapy as a way to begin to get them to talk and understand their fears. One in four children at the camps exhibit signs of depression, and it is common for children to develop sleeping disorders and trauma-related anxiety. Art therapy is helpful since “it is easier for children to express their fears through drawing,” Morabito, a psychologist working with the children at the camp has cited. The psychologists then talk about the images, “which helps the children manage and control their fears.”

In Beirut, artists use their art to help alleviate the fears and stress of those affected by attacks. Before the suicide bombing earlier this month, a car bomb exploded in a busy street of Haret Hreik on January 2, killing two people. On January 21, another car bomb went off less than 100 meters away, killing six. Many in the quiet suburb live in fear that passing cars could potentially be another attack.

Artists from the suburb wanted to find a way to uplift their neighbors in their time of fear and mourning and created The Bridge of Colours Festival. 45 artists from Lebanon, Iraq and Syria came together representing a variety of religious faiths – Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Christians, Druzes – and “painted, made music, and read poems all day.” The festival takes place just a few hundred meters from the two blast sites. Many of the artists joined together to paint the road barriers where the attacks occurred in bright colors. cement

Cement blocks painted by Ali Bahssoun and his friends.

“When people here see the blocks, they see fear. So we have started colouring them so that people can see beauty instead, and forget the terrorist attacks for a bit,” said Ali Bahssoun, a graffiti artist who lives in Haret Hreik. “Of course, I’m realistic. I know that paintings don’t prevent explosions, but I do think that art can send a message to terrorists: We will not be ruled by fear.”

It took me 14 years to finally be released from the hold of fear that terrorists so desperately seek to instill in those they terrorize. Every year on 9/11, I reflect on those residual feelings of dread and fear. This year, those feelings finally began to change. Here’s a portion of this reflection:

When the Towers fell, my world changed again. I saw my Aunt stand shell-shocked, covered in soot from head to toe…The train rides where everyone fell silent when firefighters from Ground Zero got on board, and where everyone gathered close when we crossed the bridge to see the empty hole in the skyline and subtle smoke still rise days later as the train conductor quietly said the Lord’s Prayer. Before then, I thought my world was safe. I thought nothing truly wrong could happen.

…But instead of the typical feeling of dread that fills me on this day, I felt relief…while driving across the bridge with my mom, I looked out into the city I fell in love with while standing on top of the world. Then I saw a light that looked like light shining straight from heaven onto one spot on the city, and realized those are the light beams where the Twin Towers once stood. But tonight, they looked like one. And I knew that it was a sign from God that we will forever be one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all. And that while we may falter, while we may face tragedy, we will always be great and whole because He is great and whole and more powerful and has more understanding than we can ever comprehend. And finally I felt that maybe there will one day be peace on Earth, or maybe in the next life to come.”

My only hope and prayer is that one day the entire world will feel this peace, especially the 1.2 million children who are now homeless and oftentimes orphans due to Boko Haram’s terror. While there are major debates and media attention devoted to the physical wars and counterattacks from the countries affected by terrorism, so few talk about the real war off which terrorism is based. This is a psychological war. No one is born a terrorist, they first have to listen and believe and be taught this sadistic way of how they could change the world. The reason they do not choose to change the world by creating nonprofits, or becoming artists, for instance, is because they believe that they can convert the world based on fear. This fear is what the children displaced into a life of refugee camps or being held hostage face everyday. Many cannot even return home to their villages because they are repeatedly attacked, and there is simply nowhere to which they can return.

But while art cannot take up arms and fight physical wars, art can fight the psychological war of terrorism. By winning this war, we can ensure that another generation of children do not have to be tormented or held captive to this fear for the rest of their lives. That they truly have a chance to live life in peace and happiness and it won’t take them the 14 years it took me. The arts were my only true outlet to get over this fear, and I know that it can be a guiding light to those 1.2 million children. Art seeks to bring this light back into the lives of those affected by terror, and it’s imperative that we as artists and arts managers make sure this can happen.


Written by EALS Director of Marketing Zenia Simpson