Teaching Resilience to Refugees

  • April 6, 2017

In a makeshift classroom in a cellar in Reyhanli, Turkey, Cal State East Bay Lecturer David Gross addresses a group of young Syrian refugees sitting in front of him.

“Arms out, chin up, breathe in and breathe out,” Gross says.

It’s a simple exercise, but the calming effect of a deep breath is almost immediate. He gives a few more instructions and the students pick up paint-covered brushes or colored pencils and begin to draw.

Reds, blacks and oranges swirl and blend on the page as a picture emerges. For one child, this is the image of a beheading. For another, it’s a drawing of bombs falling from the sky and bodies littered across the ground. And for yet another, it’s a painting of a small boat and the words “will be the next day better” written above it.

The students are participating in an art therapy-inspired course led by Gross and his life partner Mieke Strand that is part of Gross’ work called the Inside-Outside Project. Gross has traveled the world working with children, and his most recent students are refugees from the Middle East who are living in camps throughout Europe.

“The reason we were so anxious to bring him to the university is, he’s the real deal,” says Associate Professor Mary Cardaras, Department of Communication chair. “He is a photojournalist, he goes into war zones, he goes into war-torn countries, he goes into populations that are compromised and that are hurting — and this is what journalists should be doing, and what our students should be learning.”


Gross first traveled to Turkey to work with refugees in 2013, and then again in Beirut in 2015. At the time, he focused his attention on children who had made their way to a final, safe destination. But this time, he’s returning to tell the story of children still on their journeys.

He and Strand will start in Athens in early April and travel what’s known as the Balkan Route all the way to Holland, stopping along the way at camps and squats where refugees are living.

The project has four key elements: art classes followed by a portrait session with each student; teacher training to ensure continuation of the lessons after Gross and Strand leave; an art exchange between refugee children and classes taught by Master of Counseling students at Cal State East Bay; and a digital archive of children’s drawings of war and disaster when the project concludes.

“Things they cannot say can still be expressed with pencil, pen and paper, [and] photography in and of itself is a therapeutic tool,” Gross says. “When you are a refugee, you are automatically a second-class citizen, and a portrait session automatically portrays you in a positive way and you end up with a beautiful picture of yourself.”


According to the U.N. Security Council, since April 2011, more than 3 million refugees have fled Syria in the wake of war. Most travel on foot via the same Balkan Route Gross will follow, which is a treacherous, 1,600-mile journey from northern Turkey to Greece, and then upward through Serbia and Austria to Germany.

But a March 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey that closed the last border out of Greece means that more than 63,000 refugees are now stuck there waiting for asylum, a process that can take years. And since then, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues have become more common in refugee camps across Europe, according to the advocacy group Doctors Without Borders.

So while part of Gross’ work is to teach art, he also wants to give the children the psychological tools to help process their emotions and experiences — and to make sure their voices are heard throughout the world.

“For a normal person, [children’s drawings of war] make them realize that no child should be able to draw these things — and you immediately know it’s not supposed to be happening,” Gross says. “We want to show who [the child] is [who is experiencing this] and what’s happening in their heads.”


Gross turned to Cal State East Bay’s Master of Counseling program for support with helping the refugee children deal with their trauma. Recently, graduate students gave him feedback on lesson plans that both educate students on painting and drawing techniques and help them process their emotions.  

Art therapy is a technique that many Cal State East Bay graduate students already use when working with young patients in the lab portion of their classes. Student Keegan Pittman says he’s seen the rewards firsthand, and believes the refugee children will benefit as well.

“We are giving them ways to express and handle the fears and the anger that children feel when the world is unjust.”

“Expressing trauma through art or drawing trauma can be a very empowering experience,” Pittman says. “In talk therapy, you’re trying to engage someone and maybe [they] can’t speak with words what [they’re] feeling, but they can tell you with their art.”

And it also gives the children an opportunity to reshape their experiences. For example, one class might involve a three-part exercise of quick drawings. The first is a pencil drawing to portray “bad things.” Next, the bad things are colored and given “life.” And finally, after some yoga stretches, the students paint over the bad with “good things” — bright colors that replace the bad with good.

“We are giving the children psychological tools for resilience,” Gross says. “We are giving them ways to express and handle the fears and the anger that children feel when the world is unjust. We are giving them time to rediscover hope for the future when everyone around them only talks about the war.”


Gross also sees the project as a chance to practice what he preaches in his classroom at Cal State East Bay. For two years, he did exactly what he tells his students to do — he practiced. He needed to be able to travel to areas of conflict and natural disaster with only his art supplies, a single light, umbrella and camera.

“Shooting portraits is one of the most valuable tools you can give a beginning photographer,” Gross, who teaches photojournalism courses, says. “As a photographer or photojournalist, half the time what you’ll be doing is portraiture.”

He’s also self-funding his trips to work with refugees through donations, a reality many of his students will face due to shrinking newsrooms and budgets.

Cardaras said projects like Gross’ are both inspirational and beneficial to students.

“[David] is a perfect example of what photojournalists do ... some of the most important work you can do as a journalist is bear witness [and] now that journalism is under attack, it’s even more important that we’re introducing our students to what real journalism is.”

In September, Gross will partner with the Cal State East Bay gallery to display both the young refugees’ artwork and his own images.

“The students will actually help curate the exhibition — they’re going to be partly responsible for the experience the audience will have,” Cardaras explains. “And he tries to involve them in all he does.”

Ultimately, Gross hopes the work will go into a book of stories, art and portraits of and about the Balkan Route and the refugees who travel it.

“I am doing the kind of thing journalism students dream of doing … not only doing documentary work, but also a project that seeks to help people,” he says.