Art with Syrian Refugees: The Za’atari Project

Za'atari refugee camp: photo by my friend Max Frieder

Za’atari refugee camp (photo by Max Frieder)

As the Syrian War rages on, desperate civilians continue to pour across the borders into neighboring countries. Since it opened a few years ago, the Za’atari Camp 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. Fortunately, Syrians 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.

Za'atari Syrian Refugee Camp in Jordan, 2013. Syrian refugee children participated in the painting of this tent community center.

There are few structured activities for youth in Za’atari 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 and improving the lives of children in Za’atari, Joel Bergner has traveled to Za’atari in 2013, 2014 and 2015 to partner with a team of Syrian refugees, artists and educators in partnership with aptART, ACTED, UNICEF, ECHO and Mercy Corps. 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 artmaking, 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.

Painting a river in Za'atari Syrian refugee camp

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 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 Joel a great deal as they collaborated on many murals, combining the traditional patterns with aerosol painting and children’s art. Together, they 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, the 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 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. The team has also facilitated projects in the Azraq refugee camp and in host communities, and hopes to continue this work in the future.

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