Doctrine divides, Action unites


  March 2014

Children in the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand illustrate the life
of the Karen people in Burma before they arrived in the camp: the
school and village were burned down by the Burmese army; the
people run to the jungle but continue teaching under the trees;
they come to the camp in Thailand as refugees where the question
always arises, “Do you want to go back to Burma?” Drawings by
children from the Mae La refugee camp in 2009
are online.
(Drawing by Saw Blu Moo)


A Drawing Tells a Thousand Stories

Saw Mort

When I was young in Burma, I liked to draw, and half of my notebook was filled with my drawings. At the time, I drew about Karen and Burmese soldiers fighting each other, the village burning and people fleeing or being killed on the roadside, etc. These were very terrible images. I also drew not only pictures based on these horrible images from my imagination though, for sometimes I also drew about the peaceful village life—the village with paddy fields, people harvesting rice and dancing our Karen traditional dance under our famous Karen mountain called Kwe Ka Baw. Sometimes I also drew people fishing in the Moe River, the river near where I was born and grew up. My drawings reflected my peaceful life and the hard times of life that I faced. I left my village when I was 5 and lived in a refugee camp in Thailand where I drew about life in this new and strange environment.

Twenty years later I worked on the children education project of a non-governmental organization (NGO), Burma Issues—the refugee children drawing project—in which we organized drawing workshops and displayed their artwork in the refugee community. We asked the children to draw about the earlier life of their parents that they heard about from them, their life now in the refugee camp and their vision for their future life. The children and young people were very talented and drew what they imagined. All of the artwork told stories—the story of their people, their country, their simple life and their dreams. In our workshops, we didn’t encourage the children to draw portraits or to copy the images found on posters or in people’s photographs. Copying the images of others could perhaps improve their skill in drawing, but it also destroys their imagination and creativity. Some artists though may not agree with me.

These experiences made me think that the children can be part of the movement for transformation by bringing their creativity, their imagination, to tell stories to the community. Sometimes the children cannot express their ideas in words; but within their drawings, they tell us what they see and what they want. Sometimes their imagination scares me, and sometimes it makes me think and reflect on our society.

When I was young, living in a war zone, if people asked me, What do you want to be in the future? I would say that I want to be a soldier. Now I asked some small children in the refugee camp, What do you want to be? Some answer that they want to be a NGO driver, a computer man, an English translator—not one child wanted to be a farmer, a teacher or a soldier. Not all children gave these responses, but some of their answers made me think about how the environment shapes them. Therefore, I believe that a good education needs to use different tools and methods to teach the children and to push them to think deeper.

Thus, I’ve thought about some ideas on how to use art as a tool to make children think critically and to solve problems in creative ways. Drawing is part of art, and art is part of our life, and children are part of our life in the future. Consequently, art can be used to stimulate children in the following manner:

1. Drawing to tell a story
2. Drawing to make children think
3. Drawing to make change

I utilized these three steps when I worked with children in the refugee camps and areas for internally displaced people, or IDPs. I tried to use this approach, but I feel that I just achieved the first step. I used the other two steps, but not effectively.

Drawing to tell the story—the first step—asks the children to draw about their life in their home, village, school, etc., to illustrate the image in their mind. After the picture is finished, moving to the second step requires us as teachers to discuss with them about why they have drawn it and to ask a lot of questions. Most Karen children don’t like questions and do not dare to ask many questions. Consequently, it’s very important to teach children to ask questions and to think more deeply about their answers. Sometimes to formulate the right question and provide the right answer is very hard work for the teacher and parent if they don’t think very carefully.

To better develop our children, we need to teach children their history, not only from schoolbooks, but to invite the old people in the community to tell their story, to share their experiences, where they are from and why they came here, etc. Teaching the people’s story is very important, not only providing the children with academic history books and facts about the past. As their teachers, we should encourage children to think, to ask questions and to draw their pictures to depict what they think, to illustrate what is in their imagination.

When the artwork is done, it can be collected and exhibited in the community hall or school or even published. It is a good practice to ask the community what they think about it, to get feedback from them, to ask the views of different members of the community—teachers, camp leaders, ordinary people, security guards, farmers, officials, etc. Today the internet can be used effectively to display the children’s artwork for advocacy as a peace activity. In this way, the children can be part of the movement, and their importance in society is strengthened. It is wise to reinforce the efforts of the children by sharing all of the responses with them to give feedback to the children.

Finally, thinking and working with the children, and just a small project like the one I’ve described, is a very big job and a project that never ends. Using art—these tools of transformation—is a process to destroy the culture of oppression and to teach children to know themselves and to be proud of their identity.

* Saw Mort, a 2007 alumni of the School of Peace (SOP) conducted by Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF), is a video journalist for Karen News.


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