Photography: Samantha Robison, AptArt
Al Za’atari Refugee Camp Mural
AptART and ACTED
50 ft Canvas
2 day – 10 hours
Working in the Al Za’atari Syrian Refugee camp in the Jordanian territory of Al Mafraq was an experience that has changed me for the rest of my life. I was invited by international arts organization ActART to come work with 4 international artists and Syrian Refugee communities to paint a canvas mural to be displayed at “Refuge”, an international exhibition in Amman. AptART( Awareness and Prevention through Art) was contracted by ACTED ( Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development) to bring sanitation awareness through artistic expression, under the umbrella of UNICEF and the UN. I crossed the Northern Jordanian border and took a nutty cab ride to the Amman ACTED guest house where i spent the night in my hammock on the roof with a beautiful view of the city. I was awoken in the morning with the Islamic calls to prayer beconing me to a day which would start my path in the famed Za’atari.
The Za’atari Refugee camp is composed of over 120,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the gruesome civil war that has enveloped their nation. Over the past year immigrant and emigrant numbers have fluctuated and at times reached multiple thousands per day entering the camp. The camp is estimated to be the second largest refugee camp in modern history. Currently it is estimated that over 700 people enter the camp each day with over 500 leaving each day to go back to Syria. The situation is incredibly complex and has put a huge amount of strain on the Jordanian population. The Za’atari camp is now the third largest city in all of Jordan, and yet none of the residents are allowed to leave the camp or to work, thus putting the whole refugee population in to forced state of stagnation. This breeds discontentment. Knowing all of this information before I entered the van on my way to Al Mafraq ( the nearest town), prepared me for an unanticipatable day . I was greeted at the ACTED van by a bustling group of extremely friendly Jordanian and international ACTED employees, who welcomed me on the van. As we drove out into the dessert ,one of the international employees started telling me about the prevalent riots, discontentment and readjustment issues of Syrian people — lives of modern stature to one of a refugee camp in the middle of the desert. I was also seriously warned not to mention my time in Israel, or anything associated with it for security measures. As we entered the barren wasteland of the northern regions of Jordan, we approached the outskirts of the camp. Without any official introduction before entering, we had arrived.
As I entered the camp it is an image I will never forget. Multiple layers of barbed wire leading into a dusty white landscape that can only be compared to the moon. As we drove to the ACTED head quarters, we drove through throngs of aimlessly wandering people who moved away — the van. The steel gate to the compound was opened, and as we entered I was greeted by a new set of Syrian ACTED staff. They were also very welcoming, but a bit less animated than the Jordanian staff. As we prepared I was called by Samantha Robison, Director of AptART who organized the project; and we set up where to meet in Sector 3. I would be meeting there Joel Bergner, my close friend and muralist who invited me to participate in this project. As we entered Sector 3, the UNICEF tents were slapping in the wind, and I was led into a “community tent” which was again surrounded in a fence and steel gate. I was warmly greeted by Joel and Samantha who both looked like they had been working day in and day out in a refugee camp for the past 2 weeks, because they had. They were eager for my energy and I gave them all I had. They had a roll of canvas and I started to organize the Syrian staff to start to prepare and hang the canvas with what minimal supplies were available. They were all surprised by my enthusiasm and excitement to start the project, and reciprocated it fully. We got the 50 ft piece hanging along the inside of the tent in a remarkably short amount of time. Before we brought in some of the children — the camp, I wanted to tell the Syrian ACTED staff a it about what I do. The whole staff were refugees themselves and I wanted to make a lasting impact in their memories. Two of the staff , Malek and Muflha spoke english and were able to translate. I told the staff this mural was not just about painting, it was a chance for everyone involved to make a statement about wat they had experienced, what they dreamed for their future, and that this piece was theirs. The surprise on their faces ushered in 15 eager kids who had been gathering outside the fence of the compound, hands gripping the fence.
As we started, it was remarkable how tentative most of the children were to start the color ground. However, once they started, it flew out, the kids and staff alike. The ground of the canvas got covered as fast as the canvas fluttered in the wind of the dessert. We then sat down, and through translation, began to discuss the concept for the piece. For their future, these children drew animals, vegetables and homes. Simple wants that translate universally. I had anticipated violent concepts, and instead the normal wants of human children took over. As we transferred these ideas and started painting the canvas came to life, and the images of donkeys, fish, cats and birds all came into plain view. As we took a break for lunch, Samantha got a phone call — the ACTED head quarters. There was a protest at the base camp, which was anticipated to become a riot. We were briefed to be evacuated. As we frantically started packing up the supplies for our 2 minutes of warning time, Samantha was called again, and told that we were far enough for safety. With this news we all relaxed, and I finished as much of the piece with the staff as possible, while hearing about their experiences in Syria. Incomprehensible stories.
We departed the camp, and returned to the ACTED guest house in AL Mafraq. Little did I know that the one night that I happened to stay in the guest house, was the anual ACTED party which invited all of the ACTED members — Za’atari to come celebrate on the roof. None of the Syrian staff could attend because they were not allowed to leave the camp, so it was only the Jordanian staff. I have never been to a true arabic party, and it is a sight to be seen. The men were feverishly dancing, and looked to be in the state of mad men. But no alcohol was served. The food was delicious and hand eaten, and the dancing went late into the night. The next day was Friday, the holy day of rest for Islam. The AptART staff stayed in the guest house and spent the day painting for the final “Refuge” exhibit. An amazing day of collaboration and art-making. Reminiscent of a mini- single-day- art-school. The next day I was working with Joel in one of the farthest reaching sectors of the camp, Sector 5. We drove through this dusty landscape to the border of the desert. We had been directed to a specific coordinate, which looked to be impossible to find. We found this ” Community tent” which had been torn apart by time, and looked to be on its last leg. However, this is where we were sent, and it is where an unbelievable day would begin. We set up all the materials to finish the canvas mural and make smaller painting for the kids. As the day started, entire families came into the tent and start painting. Not just children, but whole families. This multi-generational dedication inspired the kids to work extremely diligently, and a couple of kids ended up even painting hundreds of windows throughout the mural. The energy was extremely high, and Joel and I were covering the groups of people in complete unison. A Syrian artist walked into the tent and explained that he would love for us to come and visit his tent and see his art. At lunch we went to his tent which was adorned with a dozen drawings of his experiences in Syria. Extremely intense drawings of loss and the experience of living as a refugee. However, he seemed subtly over-joyed to have us in his company, and to be appreciated as an artist. We discussed his continued interest in bringing artistic expression to children throughout the camp, and to continue the seed that AptART had planted in Za’atari. The look in his eye of usefulness in a horrible situation still resonated with me.
As we left his tent, a second man came and invited me to a hair cut in his barber tent. ALthough I happen love my hair-doo, my beard was looking a little shaggy so I went in for a beard cut. In this tiny tent, was a impeccably set up barbershop that was directly out of a movie. After a rollicking gig of beard-cutting, we departed to finish the mural. While a boy was flying a rainbow kite on the heat of the white dirt, the mural was fervently being worked on by an energetic group of kids and parents. As the mural came to a close, we took one final photo, and the kids were insistent not to leave. To get them to leave the tent so we could clean up, I grabbed my trusty harmonica and tooted it as I danced my way out of the tent. As I sauntered into the barbed wired dessert, the whole gallop of kids followed. As I played and danced, they followed. We began to jump in circles together to the tooting of my tiny harmonica. Over thirty refugee children all jumping in circles all to this tiny instrument, in a moment of blissful joy. And with this singular moment of joy and finished mural, It was time for me to depart. However I believe that Syrian artist will continue to bring creativity to his community, and this mural was the start of movement in a place of stagnation. The “Refuge” show displayed sections of the mural which were sold in Amman to raise money for more AptART supplies and programming to the children of the Za’atzari camp. Art may not be the answer to solving all the trauma that conflict can inflict. However, working in the Al Za’atari Syrian refugee camp woke me up to the potential art has to be not to be an answer, but a beginning to the impossible task of repairing the world with bit of color, creation and inspired action.