Julie Korn ’02: Art and Play in Niger

CURE Niger, a children’s hospital in Africa, has a new playground for patients, funded in part by the sales of final artwork by students in the Gordon IN Orvieto program. Julie Korn ’02, art therapist at CURE Niger and manager of the playground project said, “After all, we are a children’s hospital and children need a place to play.”

Julie and her husband, Josh ’05, have called Niamey, Niger home for nearly five and a half years. During that time, Julie has gained a deep understanding of what disabled Nigerien children experience as broken outsiders on the margins of society. It is a common cultural belief that if you born with a physical deficiency, you are cursed, she explained.

“Families won’t send them to school. Sometimes they’re hidden away in their homes. They’re treated like second-class citizens,” she said. As a result, children arrive at the hospital shut down and afraid.

Julie uses her art degree and wisdom gleaned from being mentored by art professor Bruce Herman at Gordon to offer art therapy for the patients. “On the outside, they’re healed. But emotionally, they’re still extremely scarred and afraid of the outside world,” Julie said. “It’s a huge thing to overcome, and so that’s why I believe that the therapy is so important.”

Julie has practiced art therapy in her childhood home of Israel through a Lesley University extension program, and observed art therapy at a home for abused children in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. But her art therapy program at CURE Niger has been distinct, she said—partly because she started the program from scratch, and partly because “most of the kids that I get have never held a crayon in their hand. They have never used paint.”

While the introduction to art (especially glitter!) amazes many patients, it’s the positive attention from the mainly Nigerien staff that benefits the children most. It’s perhaps one of the first times in their lives that the kids are treated the way they should be treated.

“From the moment they walk into the hospital to the time they leave, they’re changed people,” Julie said.

She recalled witnessing one patient from Mali’s gradual and thoughtful immersion into Christianity (Niger is 98 percent Muslim). The girl talked to her spiritual director and formulated a list of questions for Julie, hoping to understand Christianity on a deeper level. But it all began, Julie said, with a declaration that “You guys (the CURE staff) are different.”

“It was amazing how she came about in her own time, and the way she felt loved and accepted here. She just felt that there is something more to this. It was very real and very thought out,” Julie said.

Part of the love and acceptance that CURE Niger staff seek to pour on the patients now comes through playtime on their new playground. Zoey Meyer-Jens ’15, a CURE Niger intern, and Julie set the idea into motion and welders from Niger Vocational Training School brought to life an idea that was inspired by sister hospital Beit CURE Malawi: an ambulance as the centerpiece for their playground.

“When I saw the pictures, I knew that we needed to do something similar here in Niger,” Julie said. So, she and Zoey went to a local junkyard and brought back an old Mercedes van to be their own playground ambulance. “For them to all of a sudden get something like this, they can’t even believe it,” she said. “‘Wow, this was built so that we get to play?’”

Back in Orvieto, teaching assistant Becky Blizard said, “It is wonderful to see each semester so many students that have been willing to sell their artwork … with the intention of providing through our modest contribution some light, color and hope for kids in one of the poorest countries on earth.”

By Dan Simonds ’17, communication arts