The Soul of the Syrian People

The Soul of the Syrian People

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Up to 100,000 Syrian refugees languish in Jordan's massive Za'atari refugee camp, having safely fled the deaths of their neighbors and the ruins of their homes but still dispiritedly waiting in a hot, dry desert wasteland for "a day that might never come." Begun in 2012 as a temporary tent settlement for a few hundred, Za'atari has ballooned into the largest refugee camp in the Middle East, a sprawling makeshift metropolis of endless tents and caravans with its own schools, clinics and mosques, all surrounded by barbed wire and armed soldiers. Aid groups have stepped up with food, shelter and other basic services, but for those for whom home is now "the mouth of a shark (and) the barrel of a gun" - and particularly for the 60% who are young and vulnerable -  there is little in the way of mental health or social support, community activities, work, joy, play, solace or even color.

To fill that gap, artists and human rights groups are organizing art projects at Za'atari and elsewhere to help children and adults grieve, heal, hold onto their memories and tell their painful stories in their own voices and images. Among them is Joel Bergner, a U.S.-based educator and "nomadic artist" who has worked with young people around the world, often in war-torn countries. Over several trips to Za'atari and in partnership with refugees, artists and groups like aptART, ACTED, UNICEF and Mercy Corps, he has created art workshops for kids using the materials at hand - tents, wheelbarrows, scraps for kites - and held a group show of kids' work in Amman to help explain "the state of refuge through the art of those who seek it."

Adult artists have likewise come together. One group in Za'atari has spent six months recreating models of Syria's most famous landmarks, many of which are now rubble and most of which have never been seen by the camp's children. "Our history is being destroyed," says one, who "left for the same reason as everyone else - the bombs and the bullets." While they cannot stop the destruction, he says they can retain and transmit the memories of what was home, in this case through images fortuitously captured on their cell phones.

"(We) are at least doing something to preserve our culture," he says, stressing that "art is a language that doesn’t need to be translated.” Even stuck in the dusty limbo of refugee life, "Artists represent the soul of the Syrian people.”

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