As the Syrian War rages on, desperate civilians continue to pour across the borders into neighboring countries. Za’atari in northern Jordan has quickly become the world’s second-largest refugee camp with approximately 100,000 residents. While they have escaped the death and destruction of war, these refugees now find themselves in a colorless desert wasteland that contrasts dramatically with their lush, green native region of Daraa, Syria. With practically no plant or animal life and endless rows of beige tents and caravans, Za’atari is a harsh land of dust storms, heat and blindingly bright sunlight. Lives are on hold and official work is prohibited. Other refugees pack into towns and cities, straining services and resources, leading to strained tensions with local populations. While international humanitarian organizations provide food, shelter, medical care and other basic services to many refugees, other issues often fall through the cracks, such as education, unemployment, poverty, mental health issues and a lack of positive activities for youth.
There are few structured activities for youth in refugee camps to engage in, and many receive substandard education or do not go to school at all. There is a lack of arts and culture that enrich the human experience and a no opportunities for refugee voices to reach out to the world in a positive way to tell their own stories. With the goal of addressing these issues, Artolution co-directors Joel Bergner and Max Frieder traveled to Jordan and Turkey multiple times since 2013 to work with teams of Syrian refugees, artists and educators organized by aptART, ACTED, UNICEF, ECHO and Mercy Corps. Together, the team facilitated workshops with kids in which they learned about water conservation, hygiene issues in the camp, artistic techniques and conflict resolution. Through discussions and artmaking, they explored social issues, their longing to return to Syria, their dreams for the future, and their plight as refugees. In host communities in Jordan, Syrian and Jordanian young people worked on collaborative arts-based projects that focused on reducing tensions and promoting social cohesion between these two populations. Hundreds of children had the opportunity to participate and add their own creativity to murals that were created throughout the Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps and in host communities, adding color and life to the desolate environment and spreading messages of hope to local residents.
This initiative emphasizes the participation of local artists with the goal of continuing this work in the future. One such artist and educator is Yusra Ali, a Palestinian woman who lives in Mufraq, the town right outside the Za’atari camp. With her upbeat personality and a talent for mixing her love of art with working with children, she has had a huge impact on everyone involved and has lead arts and education workshops outside of the project as well. Another star was Ali Kiwan, a soft-spoken Syrian artist and resident of Za’atari who specializes in classic Arabesque patterns. He taught the team a great deal as they collaborated on many murals, combining the traditional patterns with aerosol painting and children’s art.
The team engaged kids like the so-called “wheelbarrow boys,” who use their wheelbarrows to smuggle goods into the camp, where they are sold on the black market. These kids are not in school and the work is dangerous. To get them involved in positive and educational activities, project facilitators conducted wheelbarrow-painting workshops, which the boys loved! The painting was combined with a variety of other educational activities and mural-making. Soon, Za’atari camp was full of boys running around with colorful wheelbarrows!
This project aims to give voice to refugee children who are often forgotten about in the barrage of horrific news stories about the Syrian war. It intends to connect these kids to positive adult role models and involve them in educational and creative activities, thereby playing a role in the rebuilding of their communities. For many, this is the only organized educational program they’re involved in. The art itself features positive messages and uplifting imagery, a breath of fresh air in an otherwise colorless landscape.
Special thanks to everyone at aptART and all the partner organizations, the local educators, artists and especially to all the youth participants for making this work possible!! Artolution is currently working toward establishing long-term, sustainable public arts programming with Syrian refugees in partnership with local artists, educators and institutions.