Posted on October 18, 2015
I 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.
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.
It 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!
Posted on July 15, 2015
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.
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.
After 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.
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 April 22, 2015
I 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!
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 July 14, 2014
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.
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.