Recognizing Women: Teaching Art and Music in Syria

CNEWA recognizes the contributions of women to our mission in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable throughout the world. This month, we highlighted the stories of women in CNEWA’s world, as told in ONE magazine through the years.

To conclude our “Recognizing Women” series, we turn our attention to Syria, a country that is currently recovering from February earthquakes and ongoing war. In Damascus, the Blessed Dina Bélanger Center for Music and Art strives to educate through art and music, an idea that came to the center’s director, Sister Insaf Shahine of the Congregation of Religious of Jesus and Mary, following a conference. Hear from Sister Insaf about the center’s impact in this story.

Below is an excerpt from ONE’s June 2022 story “Healing Families Devastated by War.” The full article may be accessed here.

Blossoming orange trees spread their sweetened scent of spring in Damascus, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

Sitting in the courtyard of an old house, Sister Insaf Shahine of the Congregation of Religious of Jesus and Mary speaks of art and music and their ability to soothe and heal.

“One day I attended a conference about healing through music,” she says. “I fell in love with the idea. We were coming out of a 10-year war, every one of us had a wound in our heart and soul.

“When God shed light this way, I thought, ‘Why not? Music is educational, which is related directly to our mission.’ I told the superior and the sisters and, with the help of many, the Blessed Dina Bélanger Center for Music and Art became a reality.”

The center, named for a Canadian member of the congregation who died in 1929, welcomes children from the ages of 7 to 14. In the past year and a half, it has offered drawing and music classes to about 200 children; 75 percent of them attend the courses for free. Parents who can afford it contribute a nominal fee. The instructors, most of them young graduates, also receive nominal remuneration.

“They want to be part of people’s joy,” says Sister Insaf about the young instructors.

And indeed, there is a lot of joy at the center. Children come running to drawing classes. Parents wait in the courtyard, taking a break from their daily obligations, sharing the burdens of a life that has become harder each day. Syria is in the midst of an unprecedented economic collapse that has plunged 85 percent of the population into poverty.

Parents do not hesitate to express how much the center has affected their children’s lives positively and they are very proud of what their children are learning.

“We haven’t seen a smile this big on our children’s faces in 10 years,” they have told Sister Insaf after a festival the center organized last summer.

“My daughter always loved drawing and here she has found the place to develop her talent,” says Raneem’s mother, asking her daughter to show her latest artwork.

Wissam, 13, talks about how playing the oud, a pear-shaped string instrument, similar to a lute, has helped him to overcome the fear he felt constantly during the war.

However, the center faces a major challenge; funding sources are scarce. The staff is worried, but Sister Insaf is not. She has “many dreams.” She is confident there will be new donors and she happily announces that a friend of the center has offered to form and conduct a children’s choir.

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