CITY OF CARAVANS: KEEPING CULTURE ALIVE IN A STATE OF UNCERTAINTY

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Veronika Michels
Staff Writer

Western media has long addressed the refugee crisis by the impact that opening borders for those fleeing turmoil in their homeland will have on domestic populations. We tend to overlook the fact that as we carry on in political debate and discussion on immigration policies, millions of Syrian refugees are living the reality that we often only comprehend as an occasional headline on our Facebook news feed. Since the onset of the civil war following the 2011 Arab Spring movement, 12 million Syrians have been forced to leave their homes. Escaping to Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, many have ended up in refugee camps and wait in uncertainty as they watch their homeland descend into further chaos. Looking through the onslaught of information concerning the crisis, it is important to remember the value of shared human experience, often conveyed through art, that is threatened on a daily basis due to the difficult setting that these refugees are forced to face.

Syrians began to cross the border into northern Jordan in 2012. The Zaatari refugee camp was constructed in just nine days as a temporary haven for those in need. It has been five years since and there is still no end in sight. In the face of uncertainty, refugees are doing their best to maintain their humanity within the camps through compassion and cooperation. They have created a small-scale economy by opening businesses and providing services for Zaatari’s many inhabitants.  Additionally, a craving for art and personal expression exists within the turmoil.  Many have taken it upon themselves to use their talents and passions for the good of the community.

Street art has been challenged in its widespread context as artists have decorated the walls of containers that make up camp facilities.  This is not the first time though that graffiti has played a role in this conflict. Amidst the Arab Spring in 2011, several Syrian boys aged 10 to 15 were arrested and brutally tortured after spraying graffiti in protest of the Assad regime. This proved to be the catalyst for the war.  Years later, children are using the same medium to spread color and images of hope in the barren terrain of the Zaatari refugee camp.

Leading the Zaatari Project, artists Joel Bergner and Max Frieder have worked together with local artists to give the children an outlet to share their passions and aspirations in a way that simultaneously builds the community. Together, participants paint murals throughout the camp on walls and caravans. Bergner explains that in addition to contributing to beautiful murals and art pieces, the children learn “about water conservation, hygiene issues in the camp, artistic techniques and conflict resolution [while exploring] social issues, their longing to return to Syria, their dreams for the future and their plight as refugees.” This project is especially valuable for the Syrian youth that have no access to education. Though local schools have made efforts to expand their teaching capacity, they cannot accommodate all of the children in the camp. This leaves 50,000 kids without some form of structure in their day. The Zaatari Project provides them with positive role models and a way to leave a personal mark in their temporary home.

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It’s not just the children in the camp who have turned to art as a way of displaying their longing for home. Mahmoud Hariri, a former art teacher in Syria, has connected with other artists in the camp to create models of well-known landmarks in Syria as part of the historical preservation project. Watching helplessly as their homes were destroyed, these artists wanted to create an outlet that could maintain the image of Syria as it once was. They mourn the history that is being lost and the cultural vibrancy of the cities that their children will never experience as they did. Without much access to internet or books, these models are one of the only ways the children can envision the country they left behind. Stressing the role that art plays in the maintenance of a society, Hariri stated, “Much of what we know about ancient civilisations or prehistoric people was preserved through their art – Egyptian hieroglyphs or cave paintings – so we feel we have an important role to play.”

There are several other art based initiatives, often supported by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), that have worked to give refugees a way to communicate their story to the world. Exile Voices, provides photography classes and workshops to children in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Skoun Project aims to maintain art therapy programs in schools in Beirut to help students express themselves in a safe environment. Another organization, Artists for Refugees, seeks to create artist collaborations between locals and refugees while working to challenge the negative perceptions of refugees in local communities.

These initiatives that focus on artistic expression and local involvement stress the importance of maintaining the human experience while preserving the cultural heritage of displaced communities. Finding a common thread through which to relate individuals is especially helpful for large groups of refugees. When masses of people are forced to abandon their established lifestyles and ambitions, their future plans remain in a haze of uncertainty and they find themselves living within foreign countries, art has the ability to powerfully communicate the terror, doubt and frustration they are experiencing. In the words of Ahmad al-Hariri, one of the model builders in Zaatari, “Art is a language that doesn’t need to be translated.” There is something both incredibly rare and valuable to have a medium that allows one to share an idea so purely.

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The current situation in Syria remains unclear. Amidst recent bombings in Damascus and Aleppo which killed over 80 people and injured many others, Turkey, Russia and the US continue to debate strategies and cooperate with local factions. Turkey views the Kurdish YPG, also known as the People’s Protection Unit, as terrorists while the US plans to support and advise them in future missions. Attempts of reaching a resolution to the conflict took place in Geneva on March 3rd. The UN will continue coordinating a series of further discussions that are aimed at outlining the restoration of order in Syria. As framed by Al-Jazeera reporter, Dylan Collins, the council has set the following four points as a guideline for future action in Syria: “Accountable governance, a new constitution[,] UN-supervised elections within 18 months, [and an anti-terrorism focus].”

Another meeting was recently held between the main Syrian opposition delegation and the Russian deputy foreign minister which suggested Russia’s help in promoting a political transition from Assad’s government.  However, sources in Moscow implied the unlikelihood of this actually garnering any serious consideration from Russia. Recently, 400 U.S. troops were deployed to Northern Syria as tactical support as they prepare to recapture the city of Raqqa from ISIS forces. Plans are also underway to bring in an additional thousand marines and army soldiers and are highly suggestive of U.S. participation in direct combat alongside Syrian and Kurdish YPG forces in the immediate future.

Despite the tragedies Syria has undergone in the last several years, hope and ambition still fuel its exiled people. Their love for their homeland and widespread care for the greater community is reflected in the way that the the Zaatari refugee camp has structured itself and continues to flourish. It is important to remember that humanity exists behind the statistics. The projects developed by artists like Bergner and Ahmad al-Hariri have had a positive impact on the community. They have created an engaging way for refugees to relate to each other and relay their lived realities to the world. The maintenance of the human experience within a prolonged state of uncertainty is invaluable.

Photos courtesy of Joel Bergner

THERE’S AN APP FOR T.H.A.T – TRANSFORMING HOW ASYLUM-SEEKERS TRAVEL


Becca Chong
Staff Writer

The phrase “there’s an app for that” is often thrown around to capture the creative spirit and potential of mobile technologies. The vast array of apps push the limits of what we think is possible; from the useful to the unique to the useless, it seems that anything can be packaged in a neat little widget on a touchscreen.

One unexpected but thought provoking use of mobile tech is its ability to help Syrian refugees find safety, learn about the process of applying for asylum, and integrate into the society of the country they end up in. As of February 2016, there is an estimated four million registered Syrian refugees, not including those who have not reached official channels of help. Essential considerations like language barriers, job security, stable housing, access to healthcare, and other essential services are a challenge to those who migrate to new homes under the best of circumstances. For refugees fleeing from violence and instability, they are infinitely harder. Now, the power of technology and collaboration is transforming that journey.

Having knowledge is paramount in navigating one’s way into a foreign new world. In this age of hyper access to information, the challenge is filtering and presenting the most relevant and useful resources for  refugees. By applying technological solutions to this age old set of problems, many innovative solutions have burst forth.

The media visibility of the hardships Syrian refugees face reached a fever pitch when the heart wrenching tragedy of the young boy became one of the most powerful faces of the refugee crisis. He drowned in his attempt to cross part of the Mediterranean Sea in his escape, garnering sympathy and outrage across the world. The tech community responded to Obama’s call for Silicon Valley to step up to the challenge, and since then, the response to the challenge of helping thousands of displaced people has been growing steadily. Both specific companies and the tech community at large have responded to these calls, like Techfugees. The non-profit is “a tech community response to the European refugee crisis” with representatives from NGOs, tech companies, entrepreneurs and startups gathering for conferences, and hackathons to find solutions for these pressing issues.

As representatives of a larger sentiment and drive to apply these hard skills and technological advances to real-world issues, specific companies have stepped up as well. These include Kickstarter, who made the refugee crisis a special case for having non-profit fundraising campaigns, and Airbnb, who is assisting in arranging free housing for aid workers.

The apps that have come out of this movement are primarily focused on delivering clear and concise information about how to navigate the new places a refugee might find themselves. A concept called information precarity, “a term referring to the condition of instability that refugees experience in accessing news and personal information,” highlights the importance of being able to access the correct information at the most relevant time.

Germany has shown itself to be an innovative hub for tech-driven solutions to pressing societal changes.  In light of Angela Merkel’s declaration of Germany’s policy to be open refugee applicants, several applications aimed at helping newly arrived migrants in the country have been created. One of them is Flutchtlinge Willkommen (“Refugees Welcome”), a product of a collaboration between two German non-profits, that aims to make housing more accessible for newly accepted refugees. The application works by engaging the local community, working to connect refugees with everyday people who have open hearts and open homes. It matches flatmates together based on specific measures of compatibility. The app has extended beyond its country of origin; now places like Greece, Portugal, and even Canada have actively started using the app. As of February 2016, the total number of refugees who have been matched to temporary homes is 527. It speaks to the power of crowdsourcing as a solution for a problem that is widespread and difficult to generalize, as in this case of finding roommates.

Once housing is established, access to services becomes the next challenge. Welcome to Dresden focuses on providing refugees and asylum seekers with up-to-date information about getting registered for healthcare, legal advice, and public authorities to contact. The importance of multiple languages being supported, local contacts, and the ability to use the app without a constant internet connection speak to how the creators of the app really focused and catered to the needs of their user base.

These tech-driven solutions have not been limited to the side of the refugee-accepting countries; many refugees themselves have been active in the cause. The app Gherbtna was created by Mojahed Akil, a Syrian refugee in Turkey, to specifically disseminate information about “jobs offers, registration requirements for Syrian students to attend universities, regulation regarding residence permits and information about settlements like which areas are safe and which are being shelled… Anything that is useful for Syrian refugees.” This is an example of how a very powerful user need drove one individual to learn the skills to create a tool to fulfill it. All of these applications embody a perspective expressed eloquently by Akil himself: “from my own experience I learned that knowledge is power and the best way to help these victims, the best thing to support these refugees is to educate yourself, get facts and work hard.” 

Empathy is how knowledge can be harnessed and directed to create collaborative, innovation solutions to large scale social challenges such as the Syrian refugee crisis. Apps that aim to help refugees settle into their new homes and integrate into society – socially and economically – are especially important for mediating the long term implications of the violence in Syria and those displaced by it. The potential of mobile technologies is staggering, but it always remains based in human intentions. So long as there is a will, there is a way, and for Syrian refugees looking to find theirs, there very well may be an app for that.  

Image by Nicolas Vigier

THE TRANSNATIONALIZATION OF CONFLICT AND HUMANITARIAN ASSISTANCE FOR SYRIAN REFUGEES

Syrian boys, whose family fled their home in Idlib, walk to their tent, at a camp for displaced Syrians, in the village of Atmeh, Syria, Monday, Dec. 10, 2012

By Marvin Andrade
Staff Writer

It is well-known that conflicts have a tendency to cluster in the same geographic regions around the same period of time; it is difficult to assess, however, whether conflict contagion is initiated from similar economic, political, social and other relevant country attributes, or if exposure to a neighboring conflict directly influences and spreads to nearby states. For more than a decade, the Middle East has experienced multiple civil conflicts that have stemmed from populations rising up to challenge their governments. These demands have been for increased government transparency, better economic opportunities and improved human dignities. The development of transnational communication networks through the increased use of online media has allowed these ideas to be spread to neighboring groups with similar grievances. It is arguable that civil conflict in Iraq and other Arab nations in the height of the Arab Spring had a direct impact in the incitement of conflict in Syria and that this realization by the global community has resulted in an evolution of how refugee camps are constructed in the neighboring regions today in response to the Islamic State.

How was conflict in Syria Contagious?

In Syria, conflict arose at the height of the Arab Spring. Through social media, the grievances of disempowered masses from Arab nations such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia were highlighted. Research into conflict contagion states that violent mobilization in one country may lead to emulation by neighboring groups facing similar conditions. This is in large part due to the fact that transnational groups are made aware of certain grievances that they are facing in their home country and may raise their level of political demands made to their government – which are oftentimes not achieved.

Since the 2003 American invasion, Iraq has succumbed to one of the largest population diasporas in modern time. There has been gradual population dispersal in Iraq stemming from political conflict and instability in the region. Following the escalation of violence in 2006 deriving from heightened sectarian tensions, Iraq witnessed one of the largest waves of population exodus. Due to historical relations with Iraq and lenient border restrictions, approximately 1.5 million Iraqi refugees of an estimated 4.5 million fled to Syria.

Since 2007 and the arrival of a large refugee population, the Syrian government’s resources were strained as it attempted to accommodate a new segment of its population. With a population of approximately 20 million, the Syrian government struggled to accommodate a sudden six percent increase in population. In 2008, three years before initial violence broke out, Syria witnessed a 30% rise in foodstuffs and basic goods. Property prices rose 40% and rent was estimated to increase 150% in the most extreme cases. Additionally, water consumption increased by 21% and the Syrian government paid $6.8 million to provide drinking water and sanitation to the refugee population. These refugees put a strain on the unemployment rates in Syria, forcing the rate of unemployment to rise to 18% in 2006. The influx of refugees severely crippled the educational system as Iraqi citizens enrolled their children in Syrian schools, forcing drop-out rates to rise.

Overcrowding and an overall reduced standard of living increased the crime rate in Syria by nearly 20%. Syria’s economy and infrastructure was unprepared for the influx of new migrants and its economy began to buckle under the strain of over a million refugees. The Syrian government stated that approximately 80% of registered refugees in Syria had relocated to the capital city of Damascus. Of the population that migrated to Syria, it is estimated that over 60% of the population is Sunni Muslim, The ethnic makeup of the refugees entering Syria is critical in understanding the ensuing conflict in Syria itself.

Large refugee populations exacerbate resource competition between citizens in the host country and the recently arrived refugee population, and alter the ethnic balance through rapid demographic shifts. The influx of refugees provided a demographic shift which was not in favor of the ruling government. Syria, a government primarily held by Alawites, saw a further increase of Sunni Muslims (the majority population) who were already discontent with a government unable to protect their interests. As noted above, conflicts are likely spread through transnational ethnic ties, whereby the group members in one state will change the prospects of mobilization for the same group in another state. As refugees began to arrive in Syria, interaction between the citizens of Iraq and Syria begins to occur; as these populations began to speak to one another, both Sunni Muslim populations grew frustrated by the worsening conditions in both states for their particular ethnic interests. While the protests in Syria were led by Syrian citizens with legitimate grievances against their home government, sufficient evidence exists to say that the presence of Iraqi refugees exacerbated the situation through their utilization of state resources, which could have been used by the Syrian state in other forms to quell the rebellion through economic concessions to protestors.

Why Refugee Camps Matter

Due to the fact that Syrian nationals were suffering low economic standing, certain individuals’ threshold to fight were surpassed due to low opportunity costs, meaning that due to a lack of jobs, sanitation, medical care, and other human necessities, individuals were more willing to fight as they had less to lose.

Currently, more than 2.8 million Syrian refugees are spread across Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and other nearby states. Learning from the failures to provide adequate structures for Iraqi refugees in Syria, the global community has come together to respond more attentively to Syrian refugee needs. Additionally, with the escalation of violence from the Islamic State and the fact that civil conflict has the potential to spread across borders, the international community is preparing many more permanent structures for refugees so that they do not join the conflict. Not all countries can afford permanent structures, however, due to the economic strains that refugees place on their economies. In nations, such as Lebanon and Jordan, the international community is providing more financial assistance in order to prevent an economic breakdown of social structures. Countries that have a vested interest in ensuring that the Islamic State does not further expand, such as the United States, are investing more money this year than it has in the past into order to combat it through more subtle tactics. The United States, with the help of several NGOs are ensuring that states such as Lebanon do not buckle under the tremendous economic burden of supporting refugees totaling 10% of their total population.

Some countries, such as Turkey, have begun to construct more enduring refugee structures. The Kilis refugee camp is constructed with permanence in mind. This camp has containers retrofitted with walls to create 3-room homes with kitchens, televisions, and plumbing, constructed along a grid pattern with working street lights and supermarkets that accept electronic currency. The Turkish government treats this camp as a means to publicize their nation to foreigners, as this treatment may facilitate positive perceptions of the nation when the refugees return to their homes.

The issue of refugee assistance in the Middle East is not fully humanitarian in nature, but rather a matter that is given special attention in order to prevent the future breakout of conflict. The international community learned a lesson from its failure to provide refugee assistance to Syria. Today, the Islamic State is pushing conflict in the region and continues to look for volunteers willing to give themselves to this new cause. This year, the international community has given more aid to help Syrian refugees than in previous years. One can only hope it is enough.

 

Photo by Syria Freedom