Art a refuge for refugee children

Living

CREATIVE ESCAPE Scenes from one of Johnny’s art classes for Ukrainian refugee children. Pic: Adam Kaczmarek

Ballyhaunis-based artist Johnny O’Shaughnessy is sharing his talents with young Ukrainians

Interview
Anton McNulty

One of the many harrowing realities of the war in Ukraine is the number of children who have been made refugees, with UNICEF estimating that children make up half of all refugees from the war.
In Mayo, the majority of the recent arrivals from Ukraine have been placed in hotels and are now living within the confines of a hotel room. When Ballyhaunis-based artist Johnny O’Shaughnessy saw the number of Ukrainian children who had been rehomed in nearby hotels, he knew he had to play his part to make them welcome and take their minds off their recent traumas.
“When you look at the circumstances of the kids who are after moving over here you have to stop and think for a second of what they are going through. It is unimaginable stuff, so I thought about it and asked what I could do as an individual, apart from just donating money, to put a smile on their face,” he told The Mayo News.
As an artist he felt the one thing you could do was to organise free art classes for the refugee children and their parents. He approached the local hotels where they were staying, and they were only delighted to give him the go-ahead.

Nervous
For the last few weeks, Johnny has been travelling between Claremorris and Ballinlough, where the refugees are staying and passing on his skills. A native of Dublin who has lived in Ballyhaunis – the home town of his mother, Annie May Nolan – for the last 30 years, Johnny admitted that he was nervous himself when all the young faces looked up at him.
“I learned a few lessons myself because there were no tables laid out and I was a bit nervous to begin with. I have done art in front of kids for friends and family, but never an actual class room. I thought there would be mayhem in the class with people throwing brushes around… but there was none of that,” he laughed, recalling the first lesson.
The class hung on his every word and stroke of his brush, and despite the language barrier, they were soon signing off the same hymn sheet.
“I could not believe the attention I got from the kids and the parents as well, who were painting along with me. They paid attention to what I was doing and they absolutely loved it. It took their mind off their own situation, which is the main reason for what I am doing. To see the smiles on their faces when they finish, well you could not buy it.
“I wanted to teach them rather than just slop around. There was a bit of a language barrier but it wasn’t long before they knew the right way and the wrong way of doing things. They copped it very quickly.
“I was really surprised by the attention they were giving to me and how they put it into action… I was out at the hotel in Ballinlough a couple of days ago, and there were kids little more than four years of age and they were producing almost what I was producing on my chart,” he said with all the excitement of a proud teacher.

Generosity
Many of the parents and children staying in the hotels have witnessed unthinkable horrors.
“I am doing this in an emergency situation for these kids who have been put in a horrible situation. They have already gone through two years of Covid and next thing there is a bloody war, so what must these kids be thinking?
“Strangely enough, they all seem well settled and they are glad to be here, but where they get their resilience from I do not know. At the start they were as nervous as I was, but as soon as you have the craic with them they are just like any other kids in the world and they get down to business. I don’t know what is going through their heads, but all I know is when I’m there all I noticed is how happy they are. That was my objective in the first place.”
One thing which Johnny has noticed is the local community’s generosity towards the new arrivals.
“People are very good. When I went to the Family Resource Cewntre in Claremorris to tell them about this they told me there were so many volunteers and people turning up to see what they could do to help [the refugees]. There are people bringing them on buses and going here, there and everywhere with them.
“People were literally coming up to me on the street giving me €50 to go towards the classes and I got about €400 to €500 from local businesses. I don’t need any more finance; if they want to donate paint or canvas that is fine,” he said.

Making a difference
Since Johnny started giving the art classes he has shared his work with other art groups around the country with many other artists taking up the mantle. He explained that he hopes to continue what he’s doing with the refugees for as long as he can but also to expand it to include underprivileged Irish children and other refugee children.
For the time being, Johnny is delighted to be bringing some joy to the young Ukrainian children. He’s really enjoying making a difference to people’s lives.
“People come up and say well done for what I’m doing, but I say it is a hobby and a doddle to me. It is easier to give than receive. I was involved on stage in musicals and bands, and as an entertainer you’ll know at the end of the night when people go home happy you are happy. Two or three hours painting with kids is not difficult because the level of satisfaction you get out of it is brilliant.”