“Egypt is highly polarised along lines of gender, class, race, religion, and other affiliations,” says Rivers, 45, who holds a PhD in Peace Studies from the University of New England, Australia. “In response to this, myself, along with a group of fellow artists, educators, and health workers envisioned a space where people of diverse backgrounds could come together to connect through arts, culture, and education.”
Born in the UK, and brought up in Australia, Rivers is now based in Cairo, Egypt where he serves as executive director of Dawar Arts, a cultural and social organisation in Egypt that uses arts to help people get to a better place, both spiritually and mentally.
“We wanted to create a ‘house of healing,’ a place where people impacted by trauma and adversity could find solace in community, while regaining the strength needed for continuing their lives,” he explains.
True to these notions, Dawar Arts offers a variety of art-inspired initiatives to promote creativity, critical thinking, and community cohesion, and most of all, provide psychological support to those who desperately need it.
“Our main focus is group work and psychosocial interventions for individuals and communities impacted by war, displacement, sexual violence, and other traumatic life events,” Rivers continues.
Dawar Arts offers workshops and professional training programs in a number of fields such as applied theatre, community arts, psychodrama, and psychotherapy. The organisation hosts cultural events ranging from theatre and live music performances, to art exhibitions and literary readings.
While the centre’s main focus is healing through art, Rivers acknowledges that it is in no way intended to replace professional medical help from a psychiatrist, for instance.
“Rather than simply verbalise experience, we explore and represent it through visual art, dance, movement, and dramatic enactment. This is particularly powerful in cases where traumatic experience cannot be expressed in words,” says Rivers. “The opportunity to engage and communicate through other means offers a valuable avenue through which to process and metabolise painful memories and psychological injury.”
Assisting refugees is integral to the team’s work. A ‘spin-off’ of Dawar Arts has now emerged in the form of Dawar Kitchen, an initiative that aims to help some of the estimated quarter of a million refugees residing in Egypt, most of whom (60%) are Syrian.
“In working with refugees, we came to understand that psychological interventions hold limited impact unless a person’s social and material needs are also addressed,” Rivers explains.
The local catering service launched in one of Cairo’s largest informal settlements, Ezbet Khairallah, so that it could build upon the connections already established within that location.
“Through catering and other forms of food production, we provide dignified employment and vocational training for migrant, refugee, and Egyptian women. [And] by engaging women from Syria and Egypt in a jointly-run initiative, we are also helping to dissolve some of the prejudices and misconceptions that divide the two communities.”
Rivers adds: “We provide our workers and their families with access to cultural activities and psychosocial programming through Dawar Arts.”
With Dawar Kitchen steadily growing, there are now plans to offer cooking classes as well as develop a cookbook to raise funds.
“Thanks to a contract with the Australian Embassy, Dawar Kitchen is currently developing a new line of artisanal food products that will be sold in supermarkets and speciality stores in Cairo. The contract will enable us to expand and train and employ more women,” Rivers states.
A new cultural initiative in cooperation with several entities, including the European Union, is also in the works.“Dawar El Ezba is a cultural centre located above the kitchen. Through Dawar El Ezba, we are leading interventions that engage children, youth, and adults in the creation of public murals, interactive theatre, and other forms of participatory art. We also hope to involve local crafts-people in future employment initiatives,” Rivers concludes.