Faiza Malik found more than peace and safety when she and her family arrived in Canada from Afghanistan nine years ago — she also found art.
The 16-year-old credits art and creativity with helping her transition to a new life. Now she wants to work with local kids to give them access to resources she never had growing up.
"I started painting when I first arrived in Canada when I was in Grade 2 or Grade 3. We had those little art projects in school and I was always excited to do those things because I was using my hands and creating something new," Malik says. "Art wasn’t really a thing that was available in Afghanistan."
She admits the culture shock was all-consuming when she and her family, including her mom, dad and three siblings, first arrived here.
"Everything I saw in Afghanistan was not what you’d see here. The amount of love and community you feel here is a lot different," she says. "Coming to Canada, art was something that I found and developed in school. There were all these different ways that kids were able to do art (in Canada)."
Two years ago, Malik became more serious about painting as a form of expression and therapy.
"I started painting to be able to express myself through a different aspect than just speaking. I wanted to use a different lens to be able to express myself," she says. "I saw art as a way to not only connect with others but also find out who I am as a person."
Studies suggest that art therapy can be an effective way to treat issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and even some phobias. It can also be an outlet to express your emotions and process complex feelings without having to use your words.
In its formal practice, art therapy combines psychotherapy and art-making to help people convey and work through difficult emotions. It’s facilitated by a certified art therapist, who is trained in the field at a graduate level.
At age 10, Malik became involved with CanU, a Winnipeg-based charitable organization that works with kids in grades 5 through 12 through its out-of-school mentorship and educational programs.
It was here that Malik found both her ambition and passion for art. The CanU Create program helps participants develop their artistic abilities through activities and workshops while learning about creating and interpreting art. It helps kids enhance their esthetic perception and find their personal artistic voice.
"CanU has done so many things for me and it’s an amazing community of people. Not only has (CanU) helped me find my love for art, but they also push me to be an ambitious person with dreams and goals in life," she says. "They’ve helped me look… at the world through a different perspective — not so much a battlefield, but more a place to be true to yourself."
Malik now shares her love of art by volunteering for the same CanU art program that inspired her. She wants to help give kids the opportunity to be imaginative and create unique projects.
Neuroscientists have studied different forms of creativity and found that activities such as painting, drawing, photography and even doing crossword puzzles are beneficial to your health. When you’re creative, your brain releases dopamine, a feel-good chemical and natural anti-depressant that actually helps motivate you. Creativity typically takes concentration; that concentration can lead to a natural high.
Studies have also found that engaging in creative behaviours — even just colouring in an adult colouring book — can improve brain function, mental health and physical health. Creative writing helps people manage their negative emotions in a productive way, and painting or drawing helps people express experiences they find too difficult to put into words.
The theory of cognition suggests that being creative is actually a basis for human life. So, why don’t we all just agree that being creative is really important?
Malik taps into her creativity to help improve both her health and wellness. The average person has about 60,000 thoughts a day and a creative act such as painting can help focus the mind. It has even been compared to meditation because of its calming effects on the brain and body.
Malik’s long-term goal is to become a doctor, specifically a pediatrician or pediatric surgeon. Her inspiration? Her twin sister, Rahila. The two were premature births; Rahila was born with cerebral palsy and developed scoliosis.
"We were born in a country where we lack a lot of medical supplies and equipment. Our birth and survival was a miracle," Malik says. "My sister is the sole reason why I want to help kids so badly. The reason I want to become a doctor is to help kids and ensure the experiences that my sister and I went through as young kids, that others don’t have to suffer in that same situation."
Working in the field of medicine is something she sees in her future, whether that’s returning to Afghanistan and building a hospital there or bringing over supplies from different countries.
"I want to specifically help kids and give the same health care that we have here (in Canada)," she says.
Using both acrylic and watercolour, Malik enjoys incorporating landscapes of different countries into her artwork because of the "freedom that comes with that." She’s also passionate about using her art as a means to talk about humanitarian topics.
"With global issues, there can be a lot of bias that goes around. When it comes to painting, there isn’t as much of that. You can just paint what you feel and see," she says. "I did a couple pieces about some of the issues in Afghanistan. The lens that I get through art is what pushes and drives me to pick up the brush and try something."
As Malik grows, learns and sharpens her art skills, she’d love to sell some of her work and maybe even open her own studio.
"I’ve commissioned a couple pieces very recently, but that’s all new to me," she says. "Maybe I’ll have a piece of art in a gallery one day; that would be nice. Or I’ll open my own art studio and teach kids for free the true beauty behind art. That’s something I have in the back of my mind."
Research has shown creative practices improve anxiety and coping skills while enhancing quality of life and significantly reducing stress — all vital for mental health and wellness. For Malik, her art extends beyond the health benefits. She’s thankful for learning art in Canada and wants to make a difference so she can show kids what they’re capable of.
"Winnipeg has given me unconditional love and support. It’s a mosaic. The beauty behind seeing so much diversity here has taught me about diversity and being welcoming," she says. "Art is not something I ever want to let go of because it’s been so helpful for me."
Sabrina Carnevale is a freelance writer and communications specialist, and former reporter and broadcaster who is a health enthusiast. She writes a twice-monthly column focusing on wellness and fitness.