A chilly reception in Jordan: Syrian Refugee Project part 3

Syrian and Jordanian youth participants

Syrian and Jordanian youth participants

photo-6Upon arriving in Jordan, I was anxious to get started on my third series of projects with Syrian refugees in the past year and a half. But the weather had other plans for me; the night of my arrival, the region was engulfed in a rare snowstorm and I spent days waiting for the country to thaw. While it seemed impossible for me to escape the cold—buildings in Jordan are generally made of cinder blocks that have no insulation and no heating beyond space heaters that don’t seem to fill a room, making it so cold that I could see my breath in my bedroom—I couldn’t help but think of the millions of people displaced by conflict around the Middle East, living in refugee camps and temporary settlements that I imagine are colder and much more desperate than regular housing in the capital.

Child participating in the mural project. Photo by Samantha Robison.

Child participating in the mural project. Photo by Samantha Robison.

Finally the weather subsided and I once again joined forces with AptART (Awareness and Prevention Through Art), Mercy Corps and UNICEF to facilitate two more mural projects with Syrian refugee youth. The first took us a school in the Bedouin community of Za’atari Village, right next to the refugee camp of the same name that I worked in during my last two visits. The project aimed to bring together local Jordanian kids and their recently-arrived Syrian peers to participate in workshops and create a giant mural together. There has been tension and animosity in the school between these two groups, which is a reflection of the situation in host communities across the region that have all experienced massive waves of refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War, putting intense strains on local resources, social services, employment and housing. The kids and teenagers discussed the importance of unity and cooperation between the two populations in their village, and expressed their ideas through writing and paintings on the wall.

A Syrian teenager expresses her dreams in the water of this mural in Azraq refugee camp.

A Syrian teenager expresses her dreams in the water of this mural in Azraq refugee camp.

For our second project, we headed to the Azraq refugee camp, where we painted a mural in an “Adolescent Friendly Space” run by Mercy Corps. We organized workshops with teenage boys and girls in which they explored their lives in Syria, how their goals and outlook on the future has changed due to their displacement, and what they dream of for their lives and for their families and nation. The mural features a boy fishing off of his camel, with the words “One day I will catch my dream” behind him. His fishing line goes into a pond on the cement floor of the space, where each participant painted their own fish filled with images and words that reflected their hopes for the future.

While this visit was much shorter than my time here last year, I once again learned a great deal from our community partners and the kids, whose resilience and upbeat spirit in the face of such unspeakable violence and pain always surprises and moves me. I hope to continue to have the opportunity to come to this region, improve on my Arabic and build more bridges with the Syrian people who, despite having suffered greatly, still have so much to offer and will need all the solidarity they can get as they strive to rebuild their lives and communities.

Here are some highlights from my 2013 and 2014 projects in Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp (partners: aptART, ACTED, UNICEF, Mercy Corps, ECHO):


IMG_9849Art & Poetry

I was saddened to hear the news that Emma, one of the Project Jericho students who participated in our summer mural arts project, took her own life a few days ago. She was only 14 years old. Emma was the “umbrella girl” in the mural, and the fact that she was chosen to be the model to represent young people who overcome great challenges speaks to her standing among her peers and staff members at Project Jericho, an arts-based youth organization in Springfield, Ohio. Though she had stopped regularly attending in recent months, Emma had been heavily involved in a variety of activities at the center, including dance, music, painting and poetry. She was a spirited and immensely talented girl. These programs and the people she met there provided a bright spot in a life that was evidently filled with pain to an extent that none of us can imagine, and that no one realized until it was too late. Tragedies like this remind me of the importance of reaching out to young people– especially those with difficult home lives and those from marginalized communities– and providing positive activities for them to become involved in, such as the arts, education and sports programs.

My thoughts are with Emma’s friends, family and Project Jericho staff members who were moved by her warmth and bright spirit during her all-too-brief lifetime.



Emma working with me on her section of the mural


Springfield, Ohio 2014: "Upward Through the Storm" mural art and poetry project with court-involved young people. Collaboration with Project Jericho.

Springfield, Ohio 2014: “Upward Through the Storm” mural art and poetry project with court-involved young people. Collaboration with Project Jericho.

Felipe’s Story pt. 3 at DC’s BloomBars

Washington, DC 2014: "Felipe's Story pt. 3" is Joel's most recent in a series of murals on the art center BloomBars. The piece features a boy in Rio de Janeiro's City of God community who Joel has known since 2009, when he began doing community-based art projects with youth. The imagery reflects the struggle that boys in many marginalized neighborhoods go through as they grow up, surrounded by negative and positive influences.

Joel, Felipe and his cousin Julia in 2009

Joel, Felipe and his cousin Julia in 2009

I recently painted the third version of “Felipe’s Story,” the mural that has been on the side of the Washington, DC arts and performance center BloomBars since 2009. That year, I spent time living and working in the slum community (favela) City of God (Cidade de Deus) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which was made infamous from a film of the same name. My host family included an 11 year old boy named Felipe, who I quickly became close with, in part because he was in desperate need of father figures in his life after his dad was killed and he was being raised by his grandmother in an all-female household. I was struck by the extreme situation that this good-natured, playful child was in; his grandmother expressed her worry to me and explained how many kids in the neighborhood, including several of her own children, got sucked into the crime and drug underworld which so often led to death, prison, or addiction. She prayed that Felipe would follow the path of education and a positive life. I realized that this was the story of thousands of kids in Brazil and millions across the world, and when I returned to DC, where I was living at the time, I approached the founder of BloomBars, John Chambers, about turning this concept into a mural with Felipe as the main character.

São Paulo, Brazil 2013: Joel's contribution to an "outdoor gallery" in a favela in the São Mateus neighborhood, organized by the graffiti crew OPNI

Joel has been visiting Brazil since 2005 to organize social arts initiatives with favela and street youth, participate in urban arts festivals and spend time with friends in communities in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, São Paulo and Brasilia.

In the five years since then, my artistic style has changed dramatically and I have had the opportunity to organize arts-based social projects with youth in marginalized communities around the world in collaboration with local organizations. My work has taken me to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, an indigenous village in Mexico, a shantytown in Nairobi, Kenya, and many more. All of this has influenced me as a person and an artist, and I am grateful to be able to continuously update the mural at BloomBars with new experiments and ideas. I have also repeatedly returned to my work in Brazil, where I have watched Felipe grow into a young man. Unfortunately, many of his grandmother’s fears have begun to come true. He was locked up last year for robbery and his cousin reported seeing him at a party with a gun. One evening I ran into him as he was on the corner with red-eyed drug traffickers with whom he now associates, an awkward encounter for both of us. Still, all is not lost. Felipe’s family and his girlfriend are positive forces in his life and are attempting to influence him to take a more positive and healthy path. This is a choice only he can make.

Joel, Felipe and his friend in 2013

Joel, Felipe and his friend in 2013

This new version of “Felipe’s Story” features a 17-year-old Felipe in the same pose as the past murals. There are two creatures struggling over him; one a demon and the other a winged bird-man who wants to guide Felipe in the right direction. As they battle to influence him, Felipe stands still, trying to figure out which way to go and what to do with his life. The artwork includes aerosol art, mosaic, a circular pattern that I saw on a sidewalk in Jordan,and creatures that I invented but which are influenced by many ancient mythological traditions. Thanks to BloomBars for giving me the opportunity to share my art and the ongoing saga of Felipe as it unfolds.

Cidade de Deus (City of God) community in Rio de Janeiro

Cidade de Deus (City of God) community in Rio de Janeiro, where Felipe and his family live. Joel has led many community art projects with local youth through the community organization ASVI and the support of the Paróquia Cristo Rei.

London & Vienna


IMG_7849In August, I spent 4 days at the Greenbelt Festival outside of London, which focuses on progressive social causes, music and art. I worked with a group of volunteers to create an interactive mural on a long wall in the entrance of the event, and we welcomed festival- goers to participate in the creation of the piece by adding their poems, drawings and messages on the colored geometric shapes. The theme was the environment; participants were asked to reflect on what we— as individuals and as communities— can do to begin the healing process and reverse the damage done to our natural environment. The wall quickly got filled up as enthusiastic people of all ages and from a variety of countries and ethnicities got inspired to add their voice to the wall. Everyone seemed passionate about at least one aspect of this issue, whether it be the pollution of our water and air, the dramatic effects of climate change, the shocking rate of animal species becoming extinct, the cutting down of rain forests or many others. It was amazing to see small children painting with their parents and elderly people participating alongside teenagers, everyone excited to be part of the creation process of a giant work of art. Thanks to all the volunteers, participants and the organizers of Greenbelt for welcoming me and supporting the mural project!

After the festival, I got to work on a new series of pieces on canvas in London. I also headed out to Vienna, Austria, where I was invited to the Levin Jam urban arts festival. Thanks to the Levin Statzer Foundation and my friend Isabella Schrammel for hosting me!



Project Jericho: Peace-building with court-involved teens

Springfield, Ohio 2014: "Upward Through the Storm" mural art and poetry project with court-involved young people. Collaboration with Project Jericho.


photo by Lauren Houser

Project Jericho, an organization that uses the arts to engage court-involved young people in central Ohio, invited me to facilitate the creation of a giant mural that featured the participation of 75 students, including teens recently released from juvenile detention, current inmates, those on probation and also children who are involved in the YMCA, where the mural was painted. The participants used poetry and painting to reflect on violence in their community and the importance of the youth taking a leadership role in the struggle to cultivate a peaceful and positive environment. This project was the culmination of months of workshops in which the Project Jericho teens participated in activities such as dance, drawing, theatre, music and performed at a public event.

Refugee Camp Art: the Za’atari Project 2014

Reema mural Za'atari 5 On a blazingly bright Tuesday morning in Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp, I met with my team of fellow artists and educators to plan for our day of workshops and mural painting with children. My friend Hamed, a Syrian who works as a hygiene promoter in the camp, told me of his pain to learn that a close friend of his had been killed fighting the government. He showed me pictures of a young, handsome man who had studied chemistry with Hamed at university, earning his masters degree and embarking on a promising career, only to become caught up in the brutality and tragedy of war. Later that morning as we were painting with the kids, one of our most dedicated young artists, a 12-year-old boy named Eyud, pulled back his long sleeves to reveal horrible disfiguring burns on his arms and leg. He told us how agents of the Assad regime, angry that his father had defected from the army to join the rebels, had electrocuted him, scarring him physically and emotionally for life. Looking at this quiet boy with a sweet demeanor, it was impossible for me to wrap my mind around the evil of this act and understand how thousands of such tragedies could be happening right in front of the world’s eyes every day. IMG_0967As millions of Syrians have fled to neighboring countries, they have been greeted by international humanitarian organizations that provide food, shelter, medical care and other basic services. But what about education, jobs, activities for youth, poverty and mental health issues? There are many complex questions that do not have easy answers; many problems that do not have simple solutions no matter how much aid money is thrown at the crisis. With the goal of improving the lives of children in the enormous Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan, I recently collaborated for the second time with the organization AptART and local artists and educators on a community-based Street Art and education project supported by ACTED, UNICEF and ECHO. Together, we led workshops with kids in which they learned about water conservation, hygiene issues in the camp, artistic techniques and conflict resolution. Through discussions and art, they explored social issues, their longing to return to Syria, their dreams for the future, and their plight as refugees. Dozens of children had the opportunity to participate and add their own creativity to murals that we created throughout the camp, adding color and life to the desolate environment and spreading messages of hope to camp residents. IMG_0402For me, one of the biggest benefits that this project has had has been involving local artists who can then continue the work once outsiders like myself have left. One such artist is Yusra Ali, a Palestinian woman who lives in Mufraq, the town right outside the 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 all of us and has already begun leading arts and education workshops outside of the project. Another star was Ali Kiwan, a soft-spoken Syrian artist and resident of Za’atari who specializes in classic Arabesque patterns. I had a great time learning from him and we collaborated on many murals, combining the traditional patterns with aerosol painting and children’s art.

This project aims to give voice to refugee children who are often forgotten about in the barrage of horrific news stories about the war. It intends to connect these kids to positive 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. We are all looking forward to future collaborations with youth, local artists and educators around the region. There are currently plans to bring similar AptART projects to the Syrian refugee populations in communities across Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraqi Kurdistan later this year and beyond.

Street Child World Cup! Football & Art for Change

The players gather on the pitch in front of the completed mural. Photo provided by Street Child World Cup.

The players gather on the pitch in front of the completed mural. Photo courtesy by Street Child World Cup.

IMG_6705The Street Child World Cup is, in my opinion, a pretty genious-y idea that began in South Africa in 2010, coinciding with the World Cup that year. This time around, a greatly expanded event took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, featuring 25 football (soccer) teams, both male and female, from 19 different countries. The teams were made up of teenagers, many of whom had recently experienced homelessness and the street life, others of whom had not lived on the streets but were at risk due to deeply precarious situations in their communities. All had been taken in by local organizations who worked with them to cultivate positivity in their lives and prevent them from falling victim to the very real dangers surrounding them; violence, addiction, abuse, mental health issues and hopelessness…

For 10 days the event exploded with energy as a whirlwind of activities took place. There was, of course, a big football tournament, culminating in the finals at Fluminense Stadium. But there were also music and dance performances, artistic activities, elaborate opening and closing ceremonies, a touristy trip around Rio, visits to a favela to interact and share with local kids and the creation of gigantic murals! You can imagine the cross-cultural potential when you have teens and their staff members from countries as diverse as India, Egypt, Kenya, Indonesia, Mozambique, the US, Brazil, Argentina, Pakistan, Burundi, Mauritius, Liberia, the Philippines, Nicaragua, South Africa, the UK, Tanzania, El Salvador, and Zimbabwe. The goal of this event (besides giving these kids the absolute time of their lives!) was to use sports and the arts to raise awareness for the plight of millions of street children around the world and call for an end to the abandonment of society’s most vulnerable citizens. IMG_6605

Before the event began, I created a welcome mural in Vidigal, one of Rio’s most famous and artsy hillside favelas, so that when the kids came marching up the steep hill they’d have a surprise waiting for them. When they got to the top they spent time mingling with local kids, getting their first taste of capoeira and sharing various dance and musical traditions with each other. It was truly amazing to watch everyone interacting, not able to understand each other’s languages but really bonding and getting excited while learning new dance steps and songs. We created a mural in which a maternal figure holds an entire favela-style community in her hands with each participant painting a house with images and poems about their own hopes and dreams for the future.

The largest mural, at the main event site called Lonier, was on a giant wall facing a football field. On dozens of hexagons (in reference to the football), the participants each wrote messages, poetry, and painted imagery relating to the themes of the event. Together, the hexagons made up 3 large figures; the first two were of an Indian male player and a Salvadoran female player. It also included, on the left side, an homage to Rodrigo, the captain of Brazil’s boys team who was gunned down on the streets of Fortaleza on his fourteenth birthday, only a month before he would have traveled to Rio for the Street Child World Cup, something he was greatly looking forward to. It was a tragic blow to his teammates and friends, who wrote messages to him on the wall, and a reminder of the extremely violent existence that these kids face, even when they have turned their lives around as Rodrigo had done. During one of Brazil’s games, the boys ran over to the image of Rodrigo on the mural after scoring a goal and bowed down in honor of him. Movingly, the Pakistan team then did the same in solidarity with the Brazilian boys. Then the Argentine boys, who had initially had a rivalry with the Brazilian, did the same when they scored. IMG_6854

For those of us who were there, it was an unforgettable experience full of moving moments. During one match between the female teams from Indonesia and Tanzania, the Indonesian girls celebrated as Tanzania scored goal after goal— it was an uneven game due to Indonesia’s lack of experience– but the girls from both teams would jump on each others’ backs and dance and sing after every goal! Then the Tanzanian goalie allowed an Indonesian shot to go in, and the whole game erupted in joyous celebrations from all the girls and fans, a spontaneous outburst that reflected the spirit of the event. Afterwards the girls became close friends, inventing their own country called “Zimbonesia” with its own flag, and crying their hearts out as they hugged each other goodbye on the final day. Remarkably, this bond was born despite the fact that they couldn’t even understand a word of each other’s languages! IMG_6788

Some may ask of this and other similar events: why use so much money, time, energy and resources for a couple weeks of sports and arts activities when there is so much need among vulnerable populations for life’s essentials: food, shelter, healthcare, etc. While no one is arguing in favor of organizing such events instead of providing food and shelter, it is important to recognize that there are many challenges that cannot be faced with these basic needs alone. Children are on the streets because they have been stripped of their basic human rights to have a life free from abuse and neglect; to have educational opportunities and safety; to be cared for and provided for. Their societies have allowed them to slip through the cracks. It is important to pressure governments to set up programs for these kids and to provide services in marginalized communities to prevent more children from suffering the same fate. Equally important, ordinary people must stop thinking of street youth as simply thieves and addicts, but instead begin to see them as victims of indifference and aggression on the part of the State, the police and mainstream society. A change in consciousness and a change in public policy: this is what Street Child World Cup and similar projects are calling for by way of high-profile, media-savvy campaigns that highlight the children’s humanity and bring attention to the issues they face. It also aims to bring street youth and like-minded organizations together to meet each other, connect and begin to build a global movement to achieve these goals.

Dozens of news stories have been broadcast across the world by global giants such as BBC, Globo, ESPN and China’s CCTV as well as the event’s massive media team, bringing the stories of the participating kids to the masses. Many of the teams returned home to great celebration in their communities as well as on the part of elected officials and local leaders. The boys from Pakistan, who placed third, were received with financial scholarships for their education. The Burundi players, who represent both the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups who fought a bloody civil war, will tour their nation to advocate for ethnic harmony and reconciliation. In Durban, South Africa, policy was changed to prevent police from forcibly displacing homeless youth, and many officers became soccer coaches for street child teams through a program aimed at preventing violence and exposing the police to the kids’ humanity. These and many other examples show what concrete achievements can be made when people come together in common cause.