Posted on June 7, 2015
I recently got back from the ancient land of Israel/ Palestine, where diverse peoples claim the same tiny slice of our planet and have been unable to resolve their conflict to this day. While politicians fail to find solutions year after year, ordinary Jews and Arabs generally live separate lives and fear one another, even when they live close together. While some believe these two groups cannot coexist peacefully, a brief glance at history shows otherwise. Jews were an integral part of Muslim societies across the Middle East and Northern Africa for centuries, and for most of that time the two lived in peace as neighbors; much more so, in fact, than either group experienced with Christian Europeans. Over half of the Jews in Israel today are descendants of these communities and it was sometimes impossible for me to distinguish between them and Arabs, as they share both physical characteristics and cultural heritage. While the current political climate does not bode well for a resolution of the conflict in the near future, many ordinary people are organizing grassroots initiatives to end the cycle of violence, hate and fear.
Taking inspiration from such initiatives, I partnered with fellow US-based artist and educator Max Frieder and his Artolution initiative to facilitate a series of community-based mural projects with Arab and Jewish young people, many of whom had few opportunities to interact. With support from the US embassy and consulate, we visited communities across Israel and the West Bank to meet people and learn about this fascinating but complex region. We collaborated with local organizations and schools to lead workshops with youth in which we would explore issues important to their lives and the value of bringing together diverse peoples. The students were introduced to the murals of other young people around the world who had participated in similar projects, which was an inspiration to them. Excited, they came up with dozens of ideas for their own mural. As a collective group of Jews and Arabs, they worked together to organize all their ideas into one cohesive mural design, and then painted it as a team.
One of the groups came up with the image of a boat floating on a sea. Out of the boat grew a tree with branches that became human figures. They wanted to send a message that despite their differences they all had the same roots, and that they were all on the same boat together. Another mural in Jerusalem told a story of the journey from disunity and conflict to peaceful coexistence, reflecting their desire to make this journey a reality in their region. While these values may sound obvious to outsiders, it is highly controversial in the Middle East. The school where we worked in Jerusalem, Hand in Hand, is the rare example of an institution where both Arabs and Jews study together. It recently suffered a vicious arson attack carried out by Jewish extremists, illustrating how intensely some elements in society oppose coexistence. The mural we created there was then installed on the outside area of the US Consulate, where people of all backgrounds must wait together in long lines together when applying for visas.
As we worked together, I was struck more by what united our two groups than what separated them. They were both teenagers after all, laughing nervously when around the opposite sex, singing along to the same pop songs and, at the end of one day of painting, they all broke out into a spontaneous dance party, with everyone dancing together to songs in Arabic and Hebrew. Of course, at the end of the project they would each return to their communities and things would not be so simple. After all, it is not easy to forgive when loved ones have been killed by members of the other side or a family’s ancestral home has been taken. But we hope that through many projects that bring the two communities together, there will slowly be an opening up, an understanding of the other’s perspective even if there is not agreement. I felt hopeful listening to many of our students’ words after these interactions; they noted that they had always been taught to fear the other, but that now they had made new friends and had a new perspective. Our goal going forward is to train local Israeli and Palestinian artists and educators to continue these public arts-based projects in order to bring new generations of youth together for dialogue, cooperation and friendship.
Posted on February 20, 2015
Upon 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.
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.
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):
Posted on June 25, 2014
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. As 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. For 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.
Posted on June 28, 2013
The Syrian Refugee Youth Arts Project in the giant Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan took place in June and July of this year. For this initiative I teamed up with international artists, Syrian refugees and child participants to explore important issues in the camp and the residents’ hopes and dreams for the future of their nation. We painted collaborative murals on tents, washrooms, a hospital and will soon be painting a school. We also created stencils, led art and educational workshops, and organized a day of kite-making and decorating. The project is a collaboration with the global humanitarian agency ACTED and the arts organization APTArt and features a team that includes myself, Syrian artist Jumana Hokan, South African artist Luc van der Walt and US artist Samantha Robison in collaboration with a big group of Syrian refugees and dozens of children and teens. –Joel B
Posted on June 11, 2013
I arrived at the airport in Amman, Jordan at around 5:30 this morning and headed to meet up with everyone from the organizations I’ll be working with, APTArt and ACTED. I was surprised to learn that we would be heading to the camp right away! After a quick cup of coffee we were on our way through the desert-y scenery to an area near the border of Syria where a massive refugee camp has sprung up and, in only 9 months, has swollen to 120,000 people! I was impressed to see that the humanitarian agencies, including ACTED who contracted us for this project, have kept this vast tent city very clean and stocked with rations of food, water, housing, and other basic living necessities. Despite this, there is a great deal of chaos here; many times a day, frustrated refugees protest and riot, often throwing stones at aid workers, and we were instructed to evacuate immediately when this happens. Our team includes artists from Syria, Jordan, South Africa and the US who are being organized by the global arts organization AptART.
Our goal here is to use public art to channel the children and teenagers’ energy to beautifying their new community, communicate messages of hope to their fellow residents, and reach the outside world to raise awareness of their plight, as the international media will be covering the project. We intend to set up an initiative that will continue long after we, the international artists, have left the camp. This week we focus on meeting with the community to discuss the themes, imagery and locations of the murals. –Joel