BY Kunle Adewale, 10:45am January 28, 2016,

Art Therapy Director: Youth Displaced By Boko Haram Need Attention To Avoid Becoming Future Terrorists

Children take a photo with Olakunle Adewale.

HTA Program

Children take a photo with Olakunle Adewale (pictured far left).

I have always desired to work with vulnerable children. When I was approached by the International Coalition for the Eradication of Hunger and Abuse (ICEHA) to be their program director for their Healing Through Art (HTA) program, I immediately said yes. It was an opportunity to leave my comfort zone to help those who are suffering.

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The Healing Through Art program uses art, theater, creative writing, and music education to heal the emotional wounds of war among children and families living in conflict zones, refugee communities, and in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps and settlements.

Program volunteers carry out monthly, day-long art sessions at the three sites where HTA currently operates, teaching students to paint, play instruments, put together skits as well as other activities designed to help them imagine a safe, productive future.

These volunteers — many of whom are IDPs themselves — are trained by professional art therapists, medical doctors, and psychotherapists to diagnose and work with children who suffer emotional and cognitive disorders resulting from armed conflict. They provide therapeutic healing through art and counseling services during and beyond the monthly event.

The goal of this program is to help these students overcome the impact of trauma, integrate in to daily life, and end the perpetuation of violence for future generations.

HTA has been operating in Nigeria since 2015 as an extension of ICEHA’s ongoing work with internally displaced children throughout the Adamawa, Kaduna, and Kebbi states of northern Nigeria, where it provides school supplies such as backpacks, pencils, books, laptop computers and tablets, school uniforms, scholarships, and general support to more than 6,000 students and their families living in six IDP settlements.

Through ongoing observation and formal assessment, including assessment from professional counselors, ICEHA has identified at least 100 children needing treatment of severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), emotional trauma, and cognitive delays due to the violence suffered from the Boko Haram terror campaign.

Working with IDP Children

As program director, I am responsible for building trust among IDPs, designing locally tailored events that utilize various mediums for artistic expression, providing ongoing training for volunteers, coordinating with our therapeutic support experts to ensure the children receive proper interventions, and ensuring that proper assessment protocols are followed.

HTA Program

Children displaced by Boko Haram use art to heal.

To date, I have trained more than 65 repeat volunteers and facilitated art therapy sessions to well more than 1,000 IDPs. We use various forms of artistic interventions, including paintings, printmaking, drawings, music, and dance.

Children have produced art that reveal the horror of surviving Boko Haram, while other works reflect the hope and beauty they now see after fleeing to safety.

See their work here:

In addition to the therapeutic benefits, I have provided materials and inspiration to many women who are now creating a new livelihood through art.

Many of their works are being showcased at faith-based organizations, art galleries, community halls, and museums of art in Nigeria and the United States of America.


My first encounter or experience at the IDPS camp was an eye opener for me. I met people of all ages who were very hungry, suffering from malnutrition, disease, poverty, and emotional trauma. Life-sustaining items, such as food, clean water, shelter, and clothing, are a luxury for them. I can recall an incident where several children struggled over 10 naira biscuits they were offered.

Many IDP children looked unkempt, unhealthy, miserable, and hopeless. Many had witnessed their loved ones being brutally murdered by Boko Haram and saw their houses, crops, livestock, villages, and schools destroyed with fire.

HTA Program

Children displaced by Boko Haram use art to heal.

After seeing this, I realized how privileged I am and how I take for granted many things in life.  The food that is wasted and the funds that have been looted would have easily prevented much of the re-victimization these survivors are now experiencing due to their living conditions.

The IDP children are eager to go back to school and want to become change agents in their communities. Many are receiving absolutely no formal education whatsoever. Some are receiving education in the fields by volunteer teachers, but they lack shelter, books, and basic school supplies.

The best situation would be to integrate these children in to local village schools, but there are two big obstacles: First, the village schools are also lacking basic school supplies and teachers. Integrating more children in to these schools would further strain them. Second, there is a lot of discrimination against IDPs, and they are often unwanted in village schools.

I am concerned at the apparent lack of security at IDP settlements. This allows infiltration by suicide bombers and other terrorist attackers. Because of the vulnerability of IDP children who often have no family and lack basic necessities of life and security, this allows Boko Haram to recruit them, creating a future generation of terrorists.

IDP adults reported that they were doing very well in their home villages, but now it is hard for them to earn a living because the tools of their livelihood were destroyed. They are eager to do hard work and care for their families.

HTA Program

Children displaced by Boko Haram use art to heal.

Take Aways

Working with IDPs has been life-changing for me.  I see how these brave survivors carry on in spite of the most horrible experiences.  Some of the children smile, laugh, and sing in appreciation of their current living situation — even though the conditions are terrible. They are truly happy just to be alive – for today.

Many of these children have been displaced several times and live in constant fear, yet are able to see the beauty in life and create beautiful art from the ugliness in their young lives. The parents are hard-working and eager to support their families. The children are anxious to get  education and become effective leaders in their communities.

It is essential that we help to heal the emotional wounds of war so these children can lead happy and productive lives rather than reproducing the terror they have become too familiar with in their lives.

As Nigerians, we all have roles to play.  Government and its agencies should partner with local and international organizations like ICEHA to bring stability to IDPs. Individuals, private organizations, corporate organizations, and well-meaning Nigerians should rise to the clarion call of restoring hope by donating their time, money, supplies, or many other needed items to our most vulnerable children.

“At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received how much money we have made, how many great things we have done.
We will be judged by ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.’”
― Mother Teresa


Last Edited by:Abena Agyeman-Fisher Updated: January 28, 2016


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