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.
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.
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