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Art is helping children cope with displacement from the Lebanon-Israel border

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Lebanon's Hezbollah says it is firing missiles into northern Israel in solidarity with Gaza. Israel is firing back into Lebanon. Hundreds of thousands of civilians on both sides of the border have been displaced. NPR's Jane Arraf went to the Lebanese coastal city of Tyre to see an arts program aimed at the children who fled their homes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: We're on the kind of school bus you just don't see much anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

ARRAF: It's American, at least half a century old, with padded metal seats. It used to be yellow, but now it's a riot of color with iconic actors, comedians and singers painted on the outside.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARRAF: We're stopping at two schools, but most of the kids piling on to the bus don't attend classes there. They and their families are living in empty classrooms since they were displaced last October from villages along the border with Israel. For a lot of them, this is the highlight of their week.

They're very excited. They're actually jumping up and down...

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

ARRAF: ...In front of the bus and clapping their hands.

KASSEM ISTANBOULI: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: And telling them, get on board is Kassem Istanbouli. And this project is part of the organization he founded, Tiro Association for the Arts.

ISTANBOULI: We see at the beginning when they come, they have a lot of stress and nervous and especially when they start to speak about themselves. You see when they remember the war.

ARRAF: The theater we're going to is just across town. But as the driver, Houssam Khatab, pulls on the aging metal gearshift to take the route along the sea...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in Arabic).

ARRAF: ...Most of the kids lean out as if they're on a tour bus. Some of them sing along to old favorites.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Singing in Arabic).

ARRAF: A few minutes later, we arrive at a historic cinema that the arts association has renovated.

ISTANBOULI: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: The little kids head upstairs, and the teenagers file into the theater for drama class.

ISTANBOULI: We will start drawing for our children up in the cafe. And then we start theater here. And then after, photography.

UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: On the second floor, next to a room with old movie posters, instructors are handing out paper plates and crayons for the younger kids to cut into the shape of baskets and draw flowers.

UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: A lot of the children tell us they aren't in school because most of the lessons are sent by WhatsApp messages or email, and they don't have access to internet.

ARRAF: The aid group Save the Children says between the pandemic, the Lebanese financial crisis and the war in Gaza, only 3% of children in Lebanon are able to read at their grade level.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Speaking Arabic).

ISTANBOULI: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Rawan, one of the displaced young people, is 18. She doesn't want to use her last name because she says her mother would get mad if she did. She's finished high school, and she plans to be a teacher. Suspended between adulthood and a disrupted childhood, Rawan is incredulous when I ask who is responsible for the war in Gaza.

RAWAN: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: "America is the one that supports Israel under the table, my dear," she says.

ISTANBOULI: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: In the theater, Istanbouli is doing a lightning round of questions with the teenagers. What's your favorite color? Your favorite food? The kids shout out answers.

ISTANBOULI: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: When he gets to, when was the last time you were happy in your life? - there's mostly silence.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: (Speaking Arabic).

ISTANBOULI: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: One boy says, "nothing."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARRAF: Then they crank up the music. And everyone gets up on the stage to dance. Rawan, covered in an elegant, black abaya, takes the hands of a little girl and dances with her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in Arabic).

ARRAF: Istanbouli created the foundation in 2014. In this country which has seen so little peace, he believes in the healing power of art.

ISTANBOULI: To be here, to get out, to come by bus, to learn drawing, photography and storytelling, to draw. All this - they can express themselves. They can feel freedom. They can get out all the painful inside through art.

HOUSSAM KHATAB: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Khatab, who drives the bus, is a photographer who came to Lebanon as a Syrian refugee.

KHATAB: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: He says the worst thing about being displaced isn't being hungry or being out of school. It's the way people look at you with pity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARRAF: There's no pity here. For a couple of afternoons a week, just regular kids doing regular things. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Tyre, Lebanon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.