CPI logo

The Birth of CPI's Storytelling Program

Displaced girls dancing during CPI storytelling event
Dr. Steven Watson in Jalozai Refugee Camp, Pakistan.

Journey of Hope: CPI's Storytelling Program

Reflecting on the journey of the inception of ChildsPlay International (CPI) to the bustling activity of CPI today, co-founders Dr. Steven Watson and Sarwar Mushtaq remain humbled by the impact they’ve witnessed. 

What began as a simple idea born out of compassion and a shared belief in the healing power of play has blossomed into a global initiative, touching the lives of thousands of children worldwide.

CPI created a small-scale children’s “Olympics” in Jalozai. The idea was simple, but carrying it out was a major project that took nine months of planning.

Origins of Empathy: CPI’s Journey with Displaced Children

CPI’s Storytelling Partner in Turkey recently asked us how our storytelling program began. This sparked a great conversation about the origins of the program, dating back to 2011 and the notorious Jalozai Refugee Camp in Pakistan.

The partnership between CPI’s Founder and CEO, Dr. Steven Watson and Sarwar Mushtaq, born out of a shared vision and a simple phone call over a decade ago, has created ripples of change across the world. Their work stands as a testament to the impact of compassionate action and the enduring strength of the human spirit.

Since its inception, CPI has touched thousands of vulnerable children in over a dozen countries, many of them displaced. Through art, song, and dance workshops, as well as storytelling sessions, we empower children to express their experiences and emotions, in a safe environment. CPI’s focus is always on play, as play engages the whole child.

Children in Jalozai Refugee Camp releasing doves during a CPI play and story event.
Boys in Jalozai Refugee Camp releasing doves during CPI's "Olympics of the body and Mind."
“I was so struck by what Inayat said about children losing their childhood because of not having play."

Sarwar and Steven Met Through a Mutual Friend

Since 2011, Steven and Sarwar have collaborated to use play as a tool to heal children from trauma, laying the groundwork for CPI.

“My friend Inayat knew Steven. He said, ‘Well, I have this friend Steven. He’s in New York and encouraged me to go to Jalozai Refugee Camp and work with the children.’ I knew of Steven but not that well, so I said, ‘Okay.’ He then mentioned that Steven was looking for a filmmaker who could document this experience. So I said, ‘Well, let’s call him and talk to him now.’ We made the call, and we hit it off.” 

Steven recalls: ‘When Inayat mentioned he was going to Jalozai, I said, ‘Make sure you bring paper and pencils so the children can draw. And a camera.’ And he did.’”

Inayat noticed that the children drew unsettling scenes:

Flowers on hills with planes bombing them. ‘These children are losing their childhood,’ he said, ‘because they don’t have the chance to play.'” He sent Steven pictures of the drawings and photos of the children in the process of drawing.

When Steven looked at the drawings and photos Inayat had sent him, he was struck by two things:



“The children in the camp were so completely absorbed in the activity of drawing, magical, and it was a rare luxury for them.”

“Their drawings included all the happy things you might expect–rolling hills and giant flowers–but in the sky were planes dropping bombs.”

Girl in refugee camp drawing
"Displaced from their homes and stripped of their friends and security, they live in constant fear and trauma. Witnessing violence, enduring drone attacks, and having their worlds turned upside down leaves deep scars, leading to anger, frustration, and pervasive insecurity. Children don't understand why this is happening to them." ~ Sarwar Mushtaq

"In America, especially American boys, ‘all’ of their drawings have planes, you know, bombing people and all of that. But it's all from movies (or games). This was not from movies. This was real-life."

One of the many drawings created by children during CPI's "Olympics" in Jalozai Refugee Camp. 🎨✨ Their art not only showcases creativity but also helps them process and heal from trauma.

We Wanted To Help Displaced Children

Bringing Art and Storytelling to the Refugee Camp

“I was so struck by what Inayat said about children losing their childhood because of not having play,” Steven recalled. “I asked him if the children in Jalozai knew about the Olympics, and suddenly the idea was hatched:

Create a small-scale children’s “Olympics” in Jalozai. The idea was simple, but carrying it out was a major project. “That is when Sarwar came into the picture,” explains Steven.

Steven and Sarwar started to talk often. “He asked if I could go over to Jalozai and do this project,” Sarwar recalls. By now, this one-off visit was brewing into a larger operation that Steven offered to fund.

displaced girl drawing during storytelling session

CPI’s first event was held in the now-closed Jalozai Refugee Camp in Pakistan, a tent community of over 150,000 people near the Khyber Pass. 

CPI created a mini-Olympics to support children uprooted by regional violence, aiming to reintroduce play, creative activity, and the chance for positive communication.

The agenda for the week included storytelling, painting, traditional song and dance, sports, and fun games. This initiative was designed to help these children regain a sense of normalcy and joy through play and creative expression.

Sarwar had over two decades of experience working with disadvantaged children, starting with the Special Olympics in Pakistan, which he founded.

His background equipped him with unique insights into the needs of children facing poverty, trauma, war, displacement, and other challenges, emphasizing the importance of play in their development.

Steven, a psychologist and mental health advocate, initiated and financed the visit to the Jalozai Refugee camp – and the “Olympics” that followed, an event that led to the creation of the non-profit organization we have today.

What ended up happening was that the team—including a school superintendent in the camp and a social worker who assessed trauma in children–put together a whole program over ten months. 

The team chose 500 kids. Sarwar and Inayat kept going and coming back (from Karachi).

“This is when Sarwar became involved in a major, major way,” Steven explains.

They called the event “The Olympics for the Body and Mind.” Steven paid for travel, volleyball nets and balls, cricket and soccer supplies, shoes, sports outfits, art supplies, and prizes for all the children.

Steven: “I initially thought that buying sports outfits was unnecessary, but when I watched the children putting on their new shoes and jerseys and caps, I realized what a difference an outfit can make in the children’s self-image.”

The Children In Their New Sports Gear

Displacement and Trauma

The Reality of Refugee Children

Displaced children are too young to understand what is happening to them.
Play Brings Healing In Times of Trauma

A bit of context:

The Jalozai refugee camp in Pakistan has been a refuge for Afghan refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) for over two decades.

Located 40 kilometers east of Peshawar, the camp became a temporary home for tens of thousands of Afghans in late 2000.

Sarwar notes that many refugees and displaced people frequently move between Pakistan and Afghanistan, with all significant decisions being made by adults.


Imagine Being a Displaced Child

“Imagine a child going to sleep in their own bed, only to wake up the next day in a tent, surrounded by unfamiliar faces and environments. This was the harsh reality for many children in the camp, which swelled to accommodate around half a million people—70% of whom were children,” Sarwar says.

The Importance of Play

Play brings healing to children suffering from trauma. Trauma takes many forms – pandemics, war, poverty, HIV orphanhood, displacement – and it affects children the most. CPI helps create a place of safety and normalcy through play, allowing respite, resiliency, and joy.
Displaced girls dancing during CPI storytelling event

Song and Dance

CPI is a champion of play-based learning, and a significant part of this approach is the incorporation of song and dance. These traditional cultural expressions, sometimes even hallowed by religion, are embodied in joyful performances. Singing and dancing invite children to improvise, making even the hardiest tradition an opportunity for fun and self-expression.
Boys in refugee camp embracing during play and storytelling event

Play Brings Healing in Times of Trauma

Play is a crucial tool for helping children heal from trauma. It provides a safe and supportive environment where children can express their emotions, process their experiences, and regain a sense of normalcy and control. Through play, children can explore their feelings and fears in a non-threatening way, allowing them to work through complex emotions and develop coping mechanisms.

The Emotional Toll War Has on Children, and How Play Heals

As children, they’re dragged around because of the adults’ problems, whether between countries, religions, or other issues,” explains Sarwar. “They don’t know what to do and are completely traumatized. Losing their friends and homes, or being trapped inside, leads to severe mental states with constant insecurity and other issues,” he continues.

"Displaced from their homes and stripped of their friends and security, they live in constant fear and trauma. Witnessing violence, enduring drone attacks, and having their worlds turned upside down leaves deep scars, leading to anger, frustration, and pervasive insecurity. Children don't understand why this is happening to them."
Sarwar Mushtaq
Sarwar Mushtaq
Co-founder CPI and Team Leader

Drawing is An Important Component of CPI’s Storytelling Program

“The children’s drawings and paintings revealed not just their artistic talents but also their resilience. They depicted scenes of their homes, memories of friends, and even the trauma they had witnessed. Through these simple acts of creativity, the children found a way to process their emotions and experiences. It was a therapeutic outlet that allowed them to reclaim a sense of agency and hope amidst their displacement,” says Sarwar.

Steven Defied Advise and Booked a Trip to Pakistan

As the “Olympics” approached, Steven was so intrigued by the possibility of bringing “some moments of play and joy” to hundreds of children in a refugee camp that he decided to visit in person. Reflecting on this decision, he says, “It was around the time Osama Bin Laden was captured and killed in Pakistan. You know, everyone, all of my friends here said, ‘You’re a crazy American going to Pakistan now. It’s a terrible idea. Don’t do it.’ But you know, I knew that I would be with friends, so I went.”

“During the “Olympics” that we organized for the most vulnerable children, all sorts of things emerged. Children who were violent and angry—understandably upset—were completely transformed. Not because of what we did, but because they had the opportunity to express themselves through drawing or listening to stories. This opportunity allowed them to release their pent-up emotions,” Sarwar says.

CPI team and displaced children at Jalozai Refugee Camp

Steven Dressed in Disguise to Visit Jalozai

The decision to visit Jalozai was indeed dangerous. Even in Pakistan, people warned Steven, saying: “You should not go into the camp; it’s very dangerous. Because of the Taliban, people have cell phones. They can easily alert others that there’s an American, and it would be very easy to trap, kidnap, or do whatever.” Steven says he was always with Sarwar or a group of Sarwar’s friends, and he dressed like a local. “If I could dress like the Pathan people (Pashtuns) up north, I could pass for a Pathan, as long as I didn’t speak,” he says. 

With this strategy in mind, Sarwar and the team created a new identity for him. Steven chuckles as he recounts: “Amongst the Pashtuns, you can create whatever name you want. At the time, I was holding a flower, and the word for the flower was ‘Gulhan’. So I became Gulhan. And I looked most like I was from the Afridi tribe, [who have a lighter complexion]. My name became Golhan [Gulhan] Afridi. When we went to the camp, I was introduced as Gulhan Afridi, the mute elder who cannot speak.”

Dr. Steven Watson in Jalozai Refugee Camp

The Pashtun people, also known as Pathans or Pakhtuns, are an ethnic group that make up 18.24% of Pakistan's population. They are mainly concentrated in the northwest of the country.

A Powerful Realization

Steven was present but advised not to speak to avoid revealing he was not a local elder. Yet, he engaged with the children through gestures. “I just would do a lot of hand language. It’s not a lot different than when you’re in a foreign country and you don’t speak the language, and you have to get by without relying on verbal language.”

Steven recalls the joyous faces of the children and the dedication of the teachers who worked tirelessly to bring normalcy to the lives of the young refugees. “I found Pakistan to be very hospitable.”

After the visit to Jalozai, Steven had a profound realization—that art and storytelling could serve as a powerful tool for emotional healing. This sparked the inception of CPI’s growing Storytelling Program.

Sarwar continues: “We recognized the potential of storytelling as a creative expression to provide comfort, understanding, healing, and resilience for children in crisis. The program was designed to give these young voices a platform to share their stories, fostering an environment where they could feel seen, heard, and supported.”

displaced children drawing in refugee camp during CPI storytelling event

Reflecting on CPI's Journey and Growth

Reflecting on the journey from that fateful phone call to the bustling activity of CPI’s Storytelling Program today, Sarwar and Steven remain humbled by the impact they’ve witnessed.

What began as a simple idea born out of compassion and a shared belief in the healing power of play has blossomed into a global initiative, touching the lives of thousands of children worldwide.

As Sarwar fondly recalls, “Every child’s smile, every story shared, every painting on those makeshift canvases in Jalozai—they all resonate with the transformative power of empathy and creativity.” Steven echoes this sentiment, emphasizing how their work is not just about providing temporary relief but also about instilling lasting hope and resilience in young hearts scarred by displacement and trauma.

Looking forward, CPI’s Storytelling Program continues to evolve, guided by the enduring spirit of innovation and collaboration. “Our goal,” Sarwar affirms, “is to expand our reach, to empower more children through storytelling, to let them know that their voices matter, and to create spaces where healing and joy can thrive amidst adversity.”

In closing, their partnership stands as a testament to the belief that even amidst the darkest of circumstances, a spark of compassion combined with thoughtful action can ignite profound change. As CPI looks ahead to the future, Sarwar and Steven remain steadfast in their commitment to nurturing that spark, ensuring that every child, regardless of their circumstances, has the opportunity to reclaim their childhood and dream of a brighter tomorrow.

Together, they continue to rewrite the narrative for displaced children worldwide—one story, one smile, and one hopeful heart at a time.

Displaced girl in Jalozai

Thank you for subscribing to ChildsPlay International's newsletter

ChildsPlay International does not share our mailing lists or member information with any agency or organization. We will only use your contact information for the purpose for which was submitted, such as sending announcements, replying to inquiries, and processing memberships and responding to requests about our programs.  You can change or remove your information from our list at any time by contacting us at Office@childsplayintl.org.