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  • Writer's pictureGabija Steponenaite

Colours and clay returned hope to Aboriginal offenders and Syrian refugees

Updated: May 6, 2020

Anni dreamt of being a dancer. Now she makes people's souls dance by freeing them from fear, trauma, anxiety, and depression.


"I think I was born dancing," said art-therapist Anni Cree, IATE, MBACP,  HCPC, from Nottingham, UK. But her passion did not lead her to the major theatre stages. Instead, she spearheaded the art therapy program in Egypt, healed aboriginal offenders in Canada, and helped Syrian refugees to find a moment of peace in harrowing war camps.

Mesmerising world of ballerinas

Anni started professionally dancing when she was 16 years old and got a job on an entertainment cruise. The relaxed, fun atmosphere excited Anni, and she intended to continue dancing and sailing around the globe. One day her friends persuaded Anni to attend BBC dance audition. Reluctantly she agreed. "During the audition, I was dancing away and thinking that I am going on a cruise," Anni said. Later that week she received a call. Out of 300 candidates, Anni was selected to join The Go-Jos, TV dance troupe, created for the BBC1 TV music chart show Top of the Pops in late 1964.

"It was nerve-wracking. Every Saturday night we would go on live performance without having much time to prepare: we would get music on Mondays for next Saturday's programme," she said.

In addition to her hectic and demanding job, Anni decided to follow her mother's suggestion and took a two-year course in movement therapy. "I learned how to help elderly and disabled people to regain or improve movement while listening to music. My mother was a professional pianist and she would play for this course," Anni said.

It was Anni's first step towards her path as a health care professional. She enjoyed studying human anatomy and basics of medicine so much that she decided to enroll in a nursing course at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. "I loved suddenly using my head rather than dance for self expression," she said. She completed her nurse training and for five years worked as a nurse in Accidents and Emergency room at Salisbury General Hospital.

There was less and less time left for dancing, especially when she got married and had three boys. But Anni did not turn away from her creative and artistic spirit: she started creating oil paintings. She kept wondering how could she bridge her two passions until she stumbled on a copy of A Dancing Time magazine. While she was casually skimming through the pages, her eyes caught an advert inviting students to enroll in an art therapy programme. "They were looking for students with dance, art, and nursing background. It was perfect for me: it combined healing and art," she said.

After her studies at the Institute for Arts and London University where she acquired an MA in Integrated Arts and Psychotherapy in 2001, she practiced art therapy in London and Glasgow.

Healing trauma inflicted by missionaries

In the midst of her career, she spent two years counselling and helping aboriginal offenders at Waseskun Healing Center in Quebec, Canada. The centre uses a variety of methods helping to change negative lifestyle patterns, enhancing residents' self-esteem and self-concept as an Aboriginal person for the residents successfully reintegrate into society.

Surrounded by nature and supported by Native American elders, she helped men who committed crimes to reconnect with their hearts, regain hope, and get ready to return to their families and communities.

"I think, I grew up in the culture where we were taught to hate criminals. When I started working with the offenders and learned their stories, I realised how much damage was done to them by white men. White men wanted to re-educate them by erasing their identities, traditions, and culture by imposing foreign religion upon them. Missionaries cut their hair, made them wear western clothes, and forced to accept different values. When a person experiences trauma, a part of him dies. A traumatised person can repeat violent actions themselves: it was done to me, I will do it to the other," Anni shared her observation.

Native American elders performed rituals to help offenders heal by reconnecting them to their ethnic roots and identities.

"While working with the prisoners, I learned a lot about compassion and the need not to judge. Many of the prisoners were raped or abused before they committed crimes," Anni said.

Healing art on Cairo streets

Ten years ago, Anni was invited by the Psychiatric Department at Cairo University in Egypt to give a presentation on Art Therapy. This form of therapy was “unheard” of in Egypt at that time and Anni was invited to help to lay a foundation. She arrived to Cairo at the end of the Arab Spring movement, in 2012.

"After decades of repression, people were ready to embrace freedom and express themselves. Over 50 university faculty and staff came to my first workshop. For years these people could not openly express themselves through painting or dance. They just loved it. And it took off, "Anni said.

A group of medical doctors and Anni opened temporary art workshops on Cairo streets, gardens and squares. They provided painting material and welcomed people to come in and express themselves. Anni observed that post-revolution Cairo held a lot of trauma in its society: people were grieving. Some people would handle traumatic experiences by being silent, withdrawn, and others by getting angry. Anni recalls witnessing many fights on the Cairo streets what she viewed as a symptom of trauma in the society.

More than 30 Cairenes would gather in a tent where they could share their experiences while painting or working with clay. Suppressed emotions would spill on paper together with colours or get moulded into clay figurines. "It was like a gift to the public," she said.

While staying in Egypt, Anni also worked with the medical non-governmental organisation Doctors without Borders and traveled to the refugee camps on the border of Lebanon and Syria. In the mornings, refugees would cross the Lebanon border to come to the tents were doctors provided food, water, and medical treatments. Anni awaited for them with large sheets of paper, paint, and clay.

"Art helps to express emotions without deeply internalising and intellectualising them. Expressed emotions help to start the healing process," she said.

At the end of each workshop, Anni sang with the refugees their traditional songs helping them, for a fleeting moment, to return to their culture.

The majority of workshop attendees were Syrian women who survived violence, sexual abuse, and escaped human trafficking. Together, they painted faces of evil, burning houses, bombs, guns, and figures of their attackers. By the end of the day, refugees would go back to the Syrian side of the border: back to their uncertain and grim realities.

Survival killer needs to be controlled

After seven years of work in Egypt, Anni came back to the UK where she continues counselling people. In a dark corner of her closet, Anni keeps long sheets of paper with the paintings by the refugees. But she never dares to look at them.

"Throughout the years, I have learned that we all are capable of wounding another person. We have a survival killer in us and we have to learn how to control it," she said.

After a day's work, Anni loves to curl up in her bed with a novel and a cup of tea by her side. She never abandoned her painting and regularly paints or attends art classes. On a sunny afternoon, she might take a walk in Sherwood Forest where another loving soul, legendary Robin Hood, helped fellow humans.


I have met Anni at the networking event organised by the Internations in London. She was sitting alone by the table and searching for something in her purse. I felt a strong nudge to say "hello". She was on a Christmas holiday visiting her family in the UK and in couple of days was heading back to Cairo. We agreed to meet next time she is back in the UK. We did meet and she shared her story while we both were sipping wine in an old, cosy The Dove Pub on the banks of Thames. I was touched not only by Anni's kindness, deep understanding of human soul, its suffering, but by her modesty. She is one of those people who gently touch your hear and silently retreat to help another when you get back on your feet.

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