Refugee Youth Facing an Uncertain Future in Germany


IMG_3669I arrived in Cologne, Germany in the midst of the refugee crisis that is engulfing Europe, with Germany at center stage of the quickly unfolding situation. The fourth installment of the #AddColourToLives tour was, therefore, very timely, as it explored the refugee experience and the importance of social inclusion in a diverse society. The project was a partnership between myself, the Cologne Park Inn hotel and the Anna-Stiftung center for children and teens who do not live with their families for a variety of reasons. Many of the teenagers who participated were refugees who had recently arrived in Germany- some only days ago- without any family. I tried to imagine arriving alone at such a young age in a strange land where no one spoke your language or understood your culture. They had experienced great hardships and trauma in the countries they came from in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa, which they now had to attempt to recover from while dealing with the painful separation from their loved ones.


The youth participants sketching their ideas during the mural design workshop.

Needless to say, the language barrier was a challenge with this project, as many recently-arrived participants did not speak German like the other children and staff, nor English. But we made it work because of our great desire to communicate with one another,and the initial workshop was a great success. After games and activities and a presentation on community mural projects, we got down to the important business of designing a mural to be painted on the long outdoor wall of the center, which faces a busy neighborhood street. The youth decided to depict the migration experience as a river of faces flowing from dark grey hands, in reference to the difficult experiences that lead to a person leaving their homeland. As the river flows along, a teenager- modeled by a participant named Marwan from Western Sahara- drags a ball and chain behind him on his foot, but despite this baggage he is flying toward the a brighter future. He throws a paper airplane in the direction he is moving, representing the goals and dreams he is striving for. On the airplane the youth wrote questions the have for their future. Marwan is made up of puzzle pieces, which was one girl’s idea for a way to show that when one has been through trauma, it is as if one has fallen apart and needs to be put back together again.

IMG_3550It was a massive effort to paint the big wall on outside of the youth center where they live in the remaining four days, but the kids were up to the challenge! They would paint starting after school each day, and many simply could not get enough, not wanting to leave each evening when it was time for dinner. One boy named Justin was obsessed with spray paint so we decided to make stencils so that the kids could use the spray paint to their hearts’ content on a wall around the corner from the mural. On the final day we had a big barbecue and enjoyed a beautiful sunny afternoon. Thanks to Mike and all the staff and youth participants at the center for the unforgettable experience, and also to my amazing hosts and collaborators at the Park Inn: Paul, Oliver, Ricarda and the whole crew!

Artistic Noise: Art with Youth in the Justice System


An explosion of creativity in our workshop!

An explosion of creativity in our workshop!

This year, I have been leading arts-based workshops with youth involved in the justice system. Through the organization Artistic Noise, I worked with teens in Brooklyn and Harlem who have recently been in trouble with the law, engaging them in creative activities and the life experience of creating art to be exhibited publicly. Together we had discussions and presentations, went on field trips, made stencils and collages, explored abstract expressionism, painted a mural, made custom T-shirts and learned painting and aerosol techniques. For one project in Brooklyn, the students created self portraits on canvas in which they spray painted their stencils over their own abstract backgrounds. In a second project, we had discussions about what positive achievement each of them would like to one day be known for. This was a question many had not previously considered, assuming that they could only be in the media for negative actions. They glued newspaper collages onto canvas, spray painted their own images on top and then created headlines that they dreamed they would one day see: achievements in the fields of medicine, sports, science and entertainment.

In one workshop in Harlem, the participants came up with a concept for a collaborative mural: the face of a young man would be full of thoughts, with one side featuring people’s negative judgements of them that they struggle against, and the other side including positive statements of self-affirmation that they wished others could know about them. We discussed the racism and stereotypes that these youth face on a daily basis, which they said leads them to feel that society views them as being criminals, drug addicts, uneducated, lazy and uncaring. They expressed that they wanted people to know who they truly are; young men and women with a strong desire to be positive members of their communities and succeed in their educational and career pursuits. We spent weeks working on the mural together, putting all these ideas into it.

A stencil piece by the student who is now facing a murder charge.

A stencil piece by the student who is now facing a murder charge.


Of course, things didn’t always go smoothly, as there are challenges working with this population. The worst moment came when one participant, who had been doing quite well and was seemingly headed in a positive direction, was arrested for murder. He was well- liked by the group, who were understandably upset by the news. He is still in Rikers awaiting trial. However, the rewards of this work far outweigh the difficulties, as I believe it is this population that most needs positive adults in their lives and creative activities to direct their energies toward. I enjoyed working in partnership with two licensed art therapists, who made sure that each workshop included therapeutic elements. It is amazing to see kids open up about their lives while making art in a way that they may not have been comfortable doing in a traditional therapist’s office. One 17-year old boy disclosed that he was stressed because he his girlfriend was pregnant, exactly the situation I had found myself in at his age. I was glad to be able to share my story with him and let him know that while being a parent is especially challenging at that age, it can also be an amazing experience and one that does not need to disrupt one’s life dreams.

IMG_0658After four months, we headed to the annual Artistic Noise exhibition in Harlem, in which works of art by dozens of court-involved young people were displayed for the public to experience. My participants were blown away; there on the walls were their creative expressions, exhibited professionally with a crowd of people from all walks of life admiring them! Many of the pieces were sold, to the delight of the young artists. What an experience for a teenager to have! Even better, some of the organization’s most dedicated participants had paid jobs in which they curated the show and created artwork, learning many skills along the way.

I am currently planning future arts-based projects with youth and adults in the court system, including those who are currently incarcerated, as I believe our justice system is broken and fundamentally unjust. Through the arts and advocacy, these issues must be brought to the light and humanized in order for us to have a long-overdue societal dialogue.

Palestinian- Israeli Art & Dialogue


IMG_0674I 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.

IMG_0539Taking 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.

IMG_0806One 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.

IMG_0528As 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.

The Warriors! East Harlem youth mural project

IMG_0510IMG_0134I spent an incredible two weeks at Innovation High School in East Harlem for their intensive enrichment program. I worked with students and staff to create a mural in the school that featured warriors from a variety of cultures around the world, both male and female, in reference to the school’s mascot. We studied public art, went on field trips to see murals and museums all around NYC, created stencils, made T shirts, and visited legendary graffiti artist Angel Ortiz (LA2) in his studio. Thanks to everyone who participated and to the school for inviting me!

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):

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.

From the Ashes: the Power of a Second Chance

Bloomington, IL 2013: "From the Ashes" created with students from the Regional Alternative School.

Bloomington, IL 2013: “From the Ashes” created with students from the Regional Alternative School.

The student participants from the Regional Alternative School.

The student participants from the Regional Alternative School.

“From the Ashes” was a homecoming for me—literally. I left my hometown of Bloomington-Normal, Illinois when I was 18 and have since lived in Chicago, San Francisco, Washington DC and Brooklyn as well as stints in places like Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Santiago de Cuba, El Salvador, Cape Verde and on and on… I’ve always gone back home regularly to visit my parents, and the idea came up on many occasions to organize one of my art & social action projects there.

The opportunity finally came by way of local partners who came together to help organize and fund the project. I worked with a group of high school students at the Regional Alternative School who had, for a variety of reasons, not been successful at their traditional high schools and now were being given a second chance at getting an education. I’ve always especially enjoyed working with kids who’ve had a rough time in life, the ones who are considered “challenging” but who I often find to be the most interesting and inspiring. This is probably partly due to my own adolescence, when I had a few challenges of my own. While I wouldn’t compare my experience to some of the severe cases that I’ve come across in my work with young people, I remember feeling isolated and misunderstood, and acting out in a variety of ways: vandalism, shoplifting, drugs… and then a relationship I was in when I was only 15 and 16 years old resulted in pregnancy. While my relationship with my son ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to me, it was quite a shock to my teenage mind to discover that I would be a father—so much responsibility at such a young age!

One of many workshops that led up to the design and creation of the mural.

One of many workshops that led up to the design and creation of the mural.

The first week with the students was all in the classroom. We discussed issues important to their lives and their communities and came up with the theme of “Second Chances” for our project. We studied mural art and its impact on humanity from ancient cave paintings to modern street art and graffiti, took turns drawing each other in different poses, learned a variety of artistic skills and concepts, played games, wrote poetry and songs based on our theme, and created individual works of art. All of this led up to the design of our mural, which we painted over the course of the second week.

Using their ideas, I came up with a design that had several principal figures but that had room for each individual to express themselves through their poems, abstract designs, drawings and written messages, all inspired by the importance of second chances in life, of recognizing unrealized potential, and of the possibility of the rebirth. The students were excited about the project, especially as they have no art in their normal curriculum. It was amazing to watch them represent their own experiences and feelings on the wall, putting it out there for the world to see. One bright, energetic 16- year- old girl pointed to a heart she had painted that had been stitched up. “This is my symbol,” she said, and told me that her childhood had been rough and she had experienced a lot of heartache in her family, but that she had made it through and was feeling positive about her future.

We had a great time painting, being interviewed by local media (TV, radio, front page of the local newspaper!) and coming up with a presentation for the inaugural event, which took place on a beautiful autumn Saturday in the parking lot in front of the mural. There was a big turnout, with friends and family members, local officials and even the mayor, who gave the inaugural speech. I spoke as well, as did three of the students. Thanks to all the sponsors who made this experience possible: the Downtown Bloomington Association, the Mirza Arts & Culture Fund, the Illinois Prairie Community Foundation, and a big thanks to the students and staff of the Regional Alternative School for all your hard work!!!  –Joel B

Painting a Syrian Refugee Camp: the Za’atari Project

IMG_3552The 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

Arrival at Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp

970718_10151722733148689_2032246966_nI 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.

photo (1)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

City of God/ Cidade de Deus: Rio de Janeiro

IMG_2948It’s been a jam-packed month in Rio de Janeiro, def one of my favorite places in the world. In what has become a regular gig, I worked with the young folks at ASVI, a community organization in the favela City of God (Cidade de Deus) in Rio’s western zone, to create a series of works of public art pieces and learn about important community issues. A great friend of mine, the super community-oriented Anglican priest Nicholas Wheeler, organizes the project and funds it through the Church in London. Nicholas is my favorite kind of religious guy; focused on uplifting the neighborhood and working with everyone to achieve this goal, including people like me who are not members of the Church or even Christianity. There is so much more that unites people when we can agree upon common goals, instead of the destructive tendency to focus on that divides us.

We first worked on a mosaic piece, which was way more work than I expected! But the kids had a lot of fun with it and learned a new set of skills. We also created two murals that used familiar biblical stories to explore current social and community issues, and liven up some of the squares in the City of God. I also got a chance to get out in the city and go to the beach, catch some live samba and other parties, and of course catch up with my friends here in Rio and meet some amazing new people.

The Garden of Eden– Brazil style!

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 2013: Joel regularly leads youth mural projects in the City of God (Cidade de Deus) community in collaboration with the youth NGO ASVI, organized by the Paróchia Anglicana Cidade de Deus

A new piece in the Plaza of the Prophets. All the plazas and streets in the City of God have biblical names, so the murals combine these familiar themes with current social issues relevant to the community. The youth contribute to the themes and designs.

A new piece in the Plaza of the Prophets. All the plazas and streets in the City of God have biblical names, so the murals combine these familiar themes with current social issues relevant to the community. The youth contribute to the themes and designs.


The kids working on the mosaic.