Where the START is

The art programme director Sonia Brewin has opened up a world of creativity for special-needs children.

Sonia Brewin, the director of START, sitting in on one of the group's workshops for special-needs children in Dubai. The organisation is also active in Jordan and Lebanon.
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A technicolour paint bomb seems to have exploded all over the walls of the Jam Jar Gallery in Dubai. On canvases dotted around the room, bright green anemones drift in a lurid orange sea; a fuchsia camel plods its way across a canary yellow desert; and the delicate pink petals of a cherry blossom tree quiver against a backdrop of dazzling blue sky. "That's bushes underneath the water," says Sara Alam, 12, dragging me breathlessly from one canvas to another, "and this is a turtle swimming in a pool."

This riotous palette is the culmination of five weeks' work by the Tuesday Group, a gathering of children and young people with special needs run by START, an organisation founded by Art Dubai and the Al Madad Foundation in 2007. "We come every week," says Irem Alam, Sara's mother. "She just loves it. And I just love the volunteers here; they really bring it out of the children." All around us, mothers are chatting as the children scamper around them. "This is seaweed," says James Casaki, 21, proudly showing me his work. "And this is the sea, but I preferred the sea to be orange instead of blue. I wanted to use my imagination."

START now runs simultaneous projects in the UAE, Jordan and Lebanon, with its remit, according to its website, to "bring art into the lives of socio-economically and culturally deprived children throughout the Middle East". "In Dubai, there are obviously people who live below the poverty line or close to it," says Sonia Brewin, the programme's director. "But they're not that well identified. So the best thing to do here, I thought, was to work with children who had special needs. That was how 'need' was identified in the UAE." Brewin, an artist, trained at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, previously ran a similar programme at the Prince's Drawing School in London, an institution founded by the Prince of Wales which, through its Young Artists Programme, provides training for disadvantaged young people.

Brewin came to Dubai to run on-site workshops at Art Dubai on behalf of the school and was soon invited to return in order to set up START. As well as hosting the weekly Tuesday Groups, the programme also engages artists, designers and film-makers to go out into the region and host workshops with young people. "When I came back, it was with the mission to make children's lives better through art," she says.

Brewin feels that there is still a stigma attached to people with special needs in the UAE. "There aren't a lot of activities for families who have children with special needs. In the UK, there are things like the B&Q internship scheme where people with Down's syndrome can go and work in a shop. There isn't that kind of awareness here that people can actually do something." The result, for older children at least, is a period in limbo when they are too old to go to school, but are unable to integrate properly into society. "We held a workshop on Saturday and a girl came along to that whose family just have her at home all week."

In Jordan and Lebanon, the workshops are aimed at a different demographic. "In Jordan, we focus on SOS, which is an orphanage network. They have something very similar to the Tuesday Group, where the SOS orphans go to the National Gallery in Amman every Saturday and they have a workshop with a team of artists." In Lebanon, START works in Shatila, a refugee camp for Palestinians in Beirut. This week, START will have a strong visual presence at Art Dubai, where its services will be available to children of all ages and abilities. "At Art Dubai, we forget our remit completely," says Brewin. "It's public-access really. We function as the children's educational activity spot. And we really make an effort to invite groups that would normally not get invited to things like that."

START's programme will feature several interactive activities: two artists in residence will be drawing within the stand, which will be painted in blackboard paint, to encourage the public to unleash their creative side; the Emirati artist and former START intern, Maitha bin Lahej has donated an abra, the hull and sails of which the children will be able to paint; and the artist Sasha Jafri, who has already hosted several workshops with the group, will be making three large canvases with the children. Work from tonight's exhibition will also be on display.

"I really enjoy it. It's so interesting seeing a mixed group of children working together," Brewin adds. For its Tuesday Group meetings, the Jam Jar provides the space and its technicians for free, as well transport. But fundraising is a huge challenge. "We are not a registered charity, so if we want to fundraise, we do it through the Al Madad Foundation," Brewin explains. "But if you give us something, we'll use it. It would be great if more people got on the bandwagon, though, and were a bit more helpful. Because that's what becomes so gruelling after a while. Everyone says, 'Oh isn't it lovely', and then no one even gives us a free paintbrush."

START's website lists several ways in which people can help, including donating art works for auction. The organisation rarely sells works created by the children, although an exhibition at the Green Gallery last December, where they were exhibited alongside well-known artists such as Gita Meh, proved successful, with around half the pieces being sold. Everyone, including children and parents, are in agreement that the services START provides are both a vital part of the community and a valuable tool for building the children's self-esteem. "Socialising and meeting other parents is one thing," says Irem Alam. "But I think it also builds their confidence. In school, they wouldn't make a big deal of this. Here, Sara spilt some paint on one of her works - it was just a smudge - and they made art out of it. They didn't say 'Oh, it's ruined.'"

James Casaki loves being able to explore a different side of his personality. "I love it because you can use your imagination like you can't use it in school. When I come here, I feel like I'm in another world." And Bee Tan, whose 15-year-old daughter Emily has been coming to Tuesday Group since it started in 2007, sees it as another way for her daughter to express herself. "Sometimes, people use paintings as a way of letting out their feelings. They see things differently to you. One of her paintings here is of a person on a lonely road. Sometimes, Emily is lonely, so when I saw that painting, I knew what it meant."

The group has several volunteers, who come to the sessions to facilitate the children's experience. "We just chat with them and see if they need anything, says Ava Monshi, 25, an interior designer. "I come along to be with the children. I always thought I could not face these children because when you hear about them, you feel so sad for them. But when I saw them the other day at Sasha Jafri's workshop at Tashkeel, there was a big board and they were all painting together. I saw that I can learn so many things from them. You can see that they are doing things that I am afraid of doing."

"I volunteered because it's an amazing cause," says Heba Othman, 25, an intern at START and a student at the American University in Dubai. "I had a sister who had Down's syndrome who passed away, so it's really close to my heart. I wouldn't want to spend my time in any other place, honestly. To be exposed to these wonderful people is really amazing." Integrating children with special needs into mainstream education is something that several of the group's mothers are fighting hard for. "They are very passionate and have managed to get some of their children into mainstream schools," says Brewin.

"People often have the misconception that people who have special needs are stupid," says Tan. "But all these kids actually have many talents. By giving them the right opportunity, they actually excel in a lot of things. But they must have the opportunity in the first place." The combination of art and children seems to be an inspiring one. "It's the idea that you can adapt," says Brewin. "You don't have to paint something green because it's green. And it's so tactile as well. One of our volunteers is a trained occupational therapist and she was explaining that touching paint and paper is really good for children with special needs because they feel the physicality of the material and they know that they're actually making something. Also, there are no rules. You can fail maths, but you can't fail art."

START will be at Art Dubai from March 18-21.