The Healing Power of Art

While working on ‘Dig Where You Are’,  I had a conversation with Lily Yeh about her experience in Rwanda.  She recounted for me how art and the process of creating something collectively helped a village of genocide survivors to heal and rebuild their lives.


“When you go to Rwanda for the first time you must experience the Genocide,” said Lily.

She pushed her computer closer so I could see a photograph of the interior of a church where in the summer of 1994, thousands of Tutsis were locked inside while grenades were dropped through the open windows.

The pastor of the church had facilitated it.

Another photo showed where thousands more had been assassinated.  The walls, still standing, were peppered with bullet holes. The pews were gone; the pulpit untouched.  Then a dim room where earthen skulls, femurs, shoulders and ribs had been thrown.  Lily pointed to a split in one of the skulls – a machete strike.  Clothing, once belonging to mothers, fathers and children, lay in piles, the colors drained.  A shirt hung on a hook on a post.  I wondered who had made the effort.

“My desire to hear people’s stories comes from pictures like this one.  It is what is buried there, “said Lily.

For over three decades Lily has been listening to stories told by those who for the most part the rest of the world has forgotten.  Beginning with a small project in North Philadelphia in the early 1980s where she engaged gang members, drug dealers and their families in helping to create a sculpture park and then transform a whole  neighborhood, she learned firsthand how art and the creative process can help people to heal.

“Art disarms people,” she said. “Behind the veils of joy and healing is a non-confrontational, nonviolent and non-militant way.  It is like the way of the water.  You go to lonely places and you slowly let the moisture be absorbed, slowly the environment changes.  You make a shift in awareness and the awareness is about being valued.”

In 2004, a decade after the Rwandan Genocide Lily Yeh met Jean Bosco Musana Rukirande, a regional director for the Red Cross in Gisenyi and a survivor.  Before, he had been a professor of Biology and Chemistry.  When Lily encountered him, he was working to rebuild his country and the broken lives of his countrymen.  His account so moved Lily that when he invited her to visit Rwanda she accepted.

In the western region of Rwanda is Rugerero Village. The people there once lived in the neighboring communities in Gisenyi, Cyanzarwe and Kibuye.  Now they live together in brick structures provided by the government. Most did not know each other before the genocide.  Now they are neighbors forced to find a future together. When Lily arrived they were sharing houses, but had nothing else.  Their homes were gone, their loved ones murdered.  Some were the only remaining members of large multi-generational families.  Before the genocide they were plumbers, teachers, cooks, mothers and fathers.  Afterward, they were just survivors.

Jean Bosco showed Lily the mass grave outside the village which had been built in haste for the remains of the genocide victims.  It was a crude concrete structure which encased a cement casket of bones.  Over the opening was a bent metal roof which leaked when it rained pouring water into the grave.

The villagers told Lily that each time they passed it they felt as if they were being killed over and over again. More difficult than dying was surviving.

“I felt the loss in their bodies, in their faces, and then the sense of despair” said Lily as she reflected on her first encounter with the people of Rugerero.

Jean Bosco knew how Lily had used art to help rebuild a decimated community in North Philadelphia and then a slum outside Nairobi, Kenya.  He also knew that the people of Rugerero needed a proper memorial to their dead before they could move forward.  If they could see beauty again, they might find hope; and Lily was the person to help them.

Lily knew from experience that before the villagers had a chance at rebuilding their lives, they had to put back together their fractured and fragmented souls and hearts.  They had to mourn their loved ones properly.  Most Rwandans are Roman Catholic and believe in the soul finding its final resting place with God.  Lily understood that only after the living had made peace with the past, would they have the capacity to create a future for themselves.

So she got to work. “I first made a sketch of the memorial plot I wanted to create.  Then I got the China Road and Bridge Company [which was working in Africa at the time] to help me. So we dug down and created a bone chamber.  Then the villagers gave me words and we made mosaics on the memorial with these words.  They painted the undulating walls around the exterior that enclosed the memorial– white, purple and the colors of Rwanda’s flag.  They chose the color purple because it is also the color of mourning.”

The making of art together created the space for people to talk to each other about the terrible things they shared.  “They put their stories on the urns and the urns were filled with plants and herbs and medicine so they could grow and be a living museum,” Lily said. The urns were placed at the Genocide Memorial Park and when it was all complete, there was a ceremony.

“The villagers decided what to wear, what to sing, what to dance, what to say at the memorial ceremony.  The place was sanctified and the seeds sown and they carried the urns and remembered.  You do not only remember individually but also collectively.  That is how you mend the broken pieces, you remember as a whole.”

In the beginning the Rwanda Healing Project, as Lily called it, had two parts.  The first was to properly bury and honor the dead in a new Genocide Memorial Park.  The second was to transform the survivors’ village, convert the ugly grey buildings to colorful illustrations of hope and life, so that every day they would be reminded of the beauty and possibilities of life ahead.

“I brought volunteers [from the U.S.] and the children painted.  It turned into public art.  The images are very Rwandan.  There is a cow,” she said pointing to photograph of a large mural on the side of a hut. “I made the utter very big.  Then we trained them how to paint and they continued to paint after I left and they painted their dreams.”

“What is this?” I asked pointing to a photograph of carved figure of a man with two heads.  The wood was pale, almost white and the expression on the faces of each head had been carefully culled out of the soft material.  One face was looking up as if asking God why this had happened to them, the other looked down his eyes soft with compassion.

She explained that this had been part of a later project to beautify the local school.

“We got the children involved in painting,” she said.  Then she asked a man to make a sculpture out of wood. “I just made a sketch and this is what he came back with,” she said. “He too was surprised by his own ability.”
The Rwandan Healing Project spanned several years during which Lily came and went from her home in the U.S.  One year she hired an engineer to teach the villagers how to build a cistern to capture rain water for drinking.  Another time she brought a solar engineer to help the villagers build solar panels to generate electricity to power light in homes and in a sewing workshop.  Lily created a small micro-financing fund with $2,000 she raised.  The villagers have taken loans to start small businesses including making dolls, sunflower oil and banana leaf charcoal.

Lily sees her work in Rwanda as Yin and Yang or that which has to do with the Genocide and that which has to do with life after the Genocide. Some of her work addresses the past, such as the memorial and tomb; the rest looks to the future and the lives of the people who have survived.  She evokes the idea of Shiva – the creator and the destroyer – as the embodiment of what she has experienced here and in so many other places in the world.

“Do you ever wonder why some experience such horror in life while the rest of us are spared?” I asked.

“That is the question I ask when I go to places of such deep suffering and find such joy.  I don’t have the answer.  But I feel that in broken places the depth of humanity is revealed,” Lily said. “It is in these broken places when we see who we are.”


Photographs are courtesy of Lily Yeh and Barefoot Artists


View the Rwandan Healing Project – a movie about Lily Yeh in Rwanda

Dallaire, Romeo. Shake Hands with the Devil – The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2003

Gourevitch, Philip. We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our familiesNew York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998.

Gourevitch, Philip. Remembering in Rwanda.  The New Yorker, April 21, 2014

Ilibagiza, Immaculée, and Steve Erwin. Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. Australia: Hay House, 2006



Kids Fighting For Kids – a new ‘Dig Where You Are’ story

In Costa Rica, a young surfer has turned his love of Jiu Jitsu into a transforming experience for kids at risk.

Leo and the kids. Courtesy of BJJJ

“I always tell the kids here that nothing is impossible. The ‘impossible’ things just take longer to do,” says Leonidas (Leo) Ruaro, the twenty-nine-year-old surfer who created the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Jaco Academy (BJJJ) in Costa Rica. “Don’t be afraid to start, I say. I think people talk a lot about doing stuff. They should just stop talking and do more.”

Through a row of plate glass windows is BJJJ. It is home to 80 kids, most under the age of 13, and some who would already be involved in drugs and crime if they were not involved here. The walls inside are white-washed and a hand painted yin/yang or Taijitu symbol dominates one side of the room.

Even the setting sun doesn’t bring relief from the heat here. As the day fades, groups of children trickle down the dusty alleyway behind the overflowing dumpster. The once empty warehouse is set back off the main road behind a gas service station. Without a hand drawn map, it would be impossible to find.

Leo is preparing for the evening’s class. Barefoot and dressed in his gi (a thick white cotton jacket and pants) he moves quickly around the room. Ten years ago, after training in Tae Kwan Do, he began learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Today he is a brown belt, the highest ranking color in the sport.

“In Jiu Jitsu you really have to think,” he says shaking a damp curl of black hair off his forehead. “It’s like human chess.”

The sport originated from Japanese Judo. Rather than meeting an opponent with a kick or a punch as in other martial arts, Jiu Jitsu is a sport where strength is trumped by skill. It is a martial art that you cannot learn alone. You must have a partner.

“And that is why it works with these kids,” he says as he notes the arrival of another group of students. “Each has to teach what he learns.”

Several years ago Leo started teaching a couple of boys – the children of friends.

“When the group got to be more than five, I asked each to bring another kid with them to class.” The numbers grew quickly. Although not all, most come here from broken homes. Some live in the slums, some are the kids of drug dealers and prostitutes. Others come from families that are rife with abuse.

Source: Lonely Planet

Costa Rica for the most part is a success story and anyone visiting this oasis in the middle of conflict-ridden Central America can’t help but be struck by how well things work. While the gap between rich and poor in Costa Rica is not as extreme as that of its neighbors, there are slums and shanty towns, and a growing underbelly. The resort town of Jaco with a population of 10,000 caters to the tourist trade. Along with cheap restaurants and surf shops however Jaco is also plagued with the seedy side of tourism: drugs, thievery, prostitution and sex trafficking.

Not all the kids who come to BJJJ Academy are at risk of being pulled into this life, but enough are and Leo knows it.

A large metal corrugated door, which is kept locked during the day, has been raised to let the children in. Two girls, no older than nine, push through the opening and past a group of boys who stand a head taller than they. The Academy accepts both boys and girls.

“Sometimes we get boys who don’t want to fight girls. They don’t think girls are good enough,” says Leo. “One time I bet one of those boys that if he could tap out a girl I would give him my gi, my belt and my car. He accepted the challenge. I told the girl not to go easy. I told her to kick his ass. And she tapped him out 6 or 7 times. At the end of that fight I stopped the class and called the girls to the front and I said to everyone: girls and boys are the same, the only difference in how we pee.”

Leo has two rules by which everyone who comes here must abide. First, in exchange for learning Jiu Jitsu for free, each child is expected to pay back by introducing two others to the sport. The second rule is that everyone must maintain good grades. If you don’t keep good grades, you are suspended from the Academy for a month. Just understanding the consequence keeps the kids in good academic standing.

There are other rules regarding hygiene, arriving on time, practicing consistently, listening, treating others with respect and helping out.

Leo grew up in a community just south of Jaco. In university he studied Hotel Management. “I could have worked in a hotel and made more money. But then I wouldn’t have time for the kids,” he says. “Instead I teach surfing. And I’m a rep for a U.S. clothing company.” Since Leo doesn’t charge for lessons he draws on his own income to pay expenses. These include taxi costs for kids who live in villages too far to walk from, food for those who come hungry, a birthday cake for someone who has never celebrated a birthday, and the gis. He prefers not to take cash donations. He doesn’t want to manage the money. But he does take donations in-kind like school supplies for those whose families cannot afford them and gis, and he actively recruits these.

Among the challenges that Leo confronts in addition to operating with limited resources, or dealing with difficult kids, are the parents and adults in these children’s lives.

“One day, one of the boys came to class without his gi and I said: where’s your uniform? The kid said – oh my stepfather burned it.  And I asked why.  He told me that his stepfather was beating his mom and he pointed a gun at her and said he was going to kill her. When the kid told his stepfather to stop, the man grabbed all the kids’ clothes and school supplies and burned them.  This kid was 8 years old and his younger brother was 7 and they both came to the Academy.  When I heard this story I just cried.  Then I called a friend who works in social work.  He told me that the only way you can end this is to kill the guy.  Because if you call the police then the police will take the kids away and put them in a foster house and that will be much worse.  And if you tell the mom to leave the guy, then she will leave him and then they will get back together.   And if you go and beat the guy up then he will beat the kids, or kill the kids or kill the mom or kill me.  It’s situations like this that have been the hardest for me.” Leo sighs and shakes his head.

The commotion in the room is mounting as more kids arrive. Large fans blow in a futile attempt to cool the space. The young bodies covered in sweat show no fatigue. Another instructor has arrived. He is Arturo, Leo’s right hand and a good friend. Shoes and sandals are scattered across the only bare piece of concrete floor. The rest of the space is covered with a white rubber mat. Leo and his friends made the mat themselves from a pile of shredded rubber tires and a large tarp stretched over top. The mat looks brand new.

Leo stands beneath the Taijitu symbol. Within seconds everyone is seated cross legged facing him. Leo and Arturo demonstrate a choke-hold explaining each movement in detail. Then two of the older boys scoot forward and show what they just learned. The rest follow, covering the white mat with twisting bodies, a collection of legs and arms; flexed toes and feet hooked across backs, heads buried in arm pits; pinned shoulders; mouths ajar, eyes squeezed shut, brows furrowed in concentration.

Every night Leo teaches the kids and after, he teaches adults. He charges the adults the equivalent of $28/month which helps to finance the taxis for the kids. He is trying to set up a foundation so that he can receive government support and maybe enough money for a van.

The BJJJ Academy changes the kids who come here. No matter where you are from, once you get on the mat you are only what you do.

“I see change all the time,” says Leo. “In Jiu Jitsu you have to listen, learn and practice or you’ll get beat up. It’s like real life. Here kids learn that life can be different. They learn that they are in charge of themselves. I don’t have to force that. And every day I see a kid grow up and a life changed.”

Leo Ruaro



If you want more information about BJJJ visit the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Jaco Facebook Page  If you want to be in touch, send an email to Leo at and ask him what he needs.

Veronika Scott Shows Us How to Dig Where You Are

I came across the Empowerment Project entirely by accident but decided I had to share what I have learned thus far about it. Veronika Scott is a young woman in her 20s who lives in Detroit. She was given an assignment in school to design something useful. What she created was a down coat that could be turned into a sleeping bag. It could also be rolled up and carried as a bag when it was too warm to wear. The coat/bag helps those with whom she’s met who live on the streets and in homeless shelters. What she has learned however is that it doesn’t solve the real problem that many face. What Veronika learned by interacting with the women in the shelters who accepted her coat, was what they really wanted was not a coat, but a job. They were willing and able to work for it. So Veronika put them to work. What started as an effort to create an innovative garment, ended up creating an empowered workforce who now helps others like themselves make a better life.