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A photographer uses toys to reflect children's experiences in war

Shielded alone photo
Brian McCarty
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War Toys
Through her drawing, a young Syrian refugee girl revealed her feelings of intense isolation and guilt over surviving a missile strike that had killed all of her close family. She shared her feelings in a 2016 group-based intervention at a Kayany Foundation school near the Lebanon-Syria border. The girl's name has been pixelated on the top right of her drawing to preserve anonymity.
Brian McCarty / War Toys
/
War Toys
Through her drawing, a young Syrian refugee girl revealed her feelings of intense isolation and guilt over surviving a missile strike that had killed all of her close family. She shared her feelings in a 2016 group-based intervention at a Kayany Foundation school near the Lebanon-Syria border. The girl's name has been pixelated on the top right of her drawing to preserve anonymity.

Photographer and visual artist Brian McCarty has had first-hand glimpses of the devastating toll war can have on a person ever since a visit to Croatia in 1996. Seeing the destruction from its war of independence made him think of how his loved ones were affected by an earlier war.

"I had thought about conversations with my father about Vietnam and his experience," McCarty said. "He was extremely reluctant to share anything really in-depth, personal."

Except, that is, when the two were playing with toy soldiers when McCarty was a kid. Then McCarty's father would tell him war stories about his grandfather, who served in World War II.

The memories of those childhood experiences and his time in Croatia gave McCarty an idea.

"I found letters that my father wrote home to my mom from Vietnam, like the first time he was shot at, or the Tet Offensive," McCarty said. "And decided to re-create those moments with a vintage 1960s, off-the-shelf G.I. Joe figure."

McCarty took photos of the scenes he re-created, which soon led to another idea of how he could use his art to help people heal from the horrors of war.

Wall shooting photo
Brian McCarty / War Toys
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War Toys
Several Palestinian children in East Jerusalem and the Dheisha Refugee Camp near Bethlehem made drawings of people being shot near the Israeli Separation Barrier, a potent source of anxiety for most of the boys and girls. This account was shared by "Walid," 11, and shows his friend who was killed by a soldier. Walid labeled him in Arabic as a martyr before placing a large "X" across the scene.
Brian McCarty / War Toys
/
War Toys
Several Palestinian children in East Jerusalem and the Dheisha Refugee Camp near Bethlehem made drawings of people being shot near the Israeli Separation Barrier, a potent source of anxiety for most of the boys and girls. This account was shared by "Walid," 11, and shows his friend who was killed by a soldier. Walid labeled him in Arabic as a martyr before placing a large "X" across the scene.

After developing his ideas for 14 years, McCarty started War Toys, an art project that later became a nonprofit organization where McCarty uses his photography and art therapy to help kids who have lived through a war.

"I learned about art therapy and play therapy and this idea of using War Toys as a way to bridge that gap between people who have experienced war and haven't experienced war," McCarty said.

Burning neighborhood photo
Brian McCarty / War Toys
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War Toys
At the Kayany Foundation's Malala Yousafzai School for Syrian Refugee Girls in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, in 2016, "Alya" drew a before-and-after scene of her neighborhood in Aleppo, Syria. She talked about how peaceful and beautiful it was before burning and being destroyed by the war.
Brian McCarty / War Toys
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War Toys
At the Kayany Foundation's Malala Yousafzai School for Syrian Refugee Girls in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, in 2016, "Alya" drew a before-and-after scene of her neighborhood in Aleppo, Syria. She talked about how peaceful and beautiful it was before burning and being destroyed by the war.

The kids meet with a trained art therapist, who helps them talk about and draw their war experiences. McCarty then takes the child's drawings, travels to the places where the events happened, re-creates the traumatic images using toys, and then takes photos of the scenes.

War Toys has worked with children from countries such as Syria, Iraq and Israel. And McCarty is now working with children affected by the war in Ukraine.

"I think it's so important to focus on the stories of children from war, because people look past the rhetoric and see those moments," McCarty said. "That really is the takeaway, that we are all the same."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Armless body photo
Brian McCarty / War Toys
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War Toys
"When people started fleeing, my mom told my sister and me to go get the rest of the family. We went out of our street and there was an Islamic State fighter lying there. His stomach was detached and his arms were dismembered next to him." — Saja, who shared her story in an art-based interview conducted by Myra Saad in May 2018 at the Dibaga camp for the internally displaced near Mosul, Iraq.
Brian McCarty / War Toys
/
War Toys
"When people started fleeing, my mom told my sister and me to go get the rest of the family. We went out of our street and there was an Islamic State fighter lying there. His stomach was detached and his arms were dismembered next to him." — Saja, who shared her story in an art-based interview conducted by Myra Saad in May 2018 at the Dibaga camp for the internally displaced near Mosul, Iraq.

Ben Abrams