Syrian Refugee Art Therapy Project – Chapter 6

Chapter 6: Internal Reflections From Za’atari Refugee Camp

As the Save the Children vehicle pulled up to the gate of Za’atari, the time had come to present our permission letter and step foot, brush, camera and microphone onto the grounds of the heavily restricted area where thousands of white tents serve as temporary housing structures. At one time the population reached above 130,000, with a current official count by UNHCR of 92,000 Syrian refugees, and unofficially, 115,000 people. Za’atari is the second largest refugee camp in the world and yet, it was hard to believe on our first day, wet and rainy. We entered the camp and saw less than forty refugees out and about, most of which were bundled against the outer black plastic of base camp, tapping into the wifi, “speaking to family left behind in Syria.” The floor plan of many living structures consisted of four individual rooms/ containers shooting off in each direction from the main living space like a compass rose, and a communal kitchen all beneath a super sized, heavy white tarp. Hence, on cold days, few left their “cozy” abodes.

The danger is real: you might get accidentally hit with a soccer ball if you step foot onto the field full of smiling Syrian youth, skillfully and strategically, running back and forth, with the occasional scream, “Goooooaaaal!” Need it be said, our team drove into the first activity compound and joined the pick up game before the engine could even be shut off. Differences were bridged with a single kick of the hand-stitched hexagonal and pentagonal paneled ball. “Let the games begin!” The Syrian boys and girls were separated, each with their own activity center, fenced on all four sides, and a guard standing watch at the front gate. 9:30 am – 12 pm scheduled with the boys and 12:30pm – 3 pm with the girls, morning and afternoon classes were more like night and day. Between 16 -20 boys took a break from soccer to join our workshops and were a bundle of revved up playfulness thirsty for confirmation and stimulation, while over 65 girls were quietly seated upon our arrival each day ready to sing, paint, but photograph and giggle.

Michael Christopher brown had just flown in from China where he was publishing his story of documenting the Libyan revolution and he had a beautiful idea; lets make journals with each of the youth so they can carry a physical representation of their internal reflections with them and then compile pages of writing, (from the youth that could write), song lyrics, photography, drawings and paintings into one large journal that reflects the internal and external journey of the Syrian refugee youth. Michael and Benjamin Swatez joined forces and shared examples of their own stories, using examples through their books/ journals, and guided both the boys and girls in a fusion of multiple exercises and forms of expression to discover the power of internal reflection; one voice spoken from many different angles, perspectives and mediums. Glue sticks, pencils, crayons, paint and photographs exploded onto the covers of these journals. Pages and pages of personal diaries were soon colored and the white space transformed into documentation of what the youth valued most in their lives. You could hear a pin drop on a dirt floor and students around the world could learn a thing or two from the commitment and eagerness to learn from the Syrian youth at Za’atari refugee camp. All while, Glen Shackley took on a promising film student, Unis, who excelled with Aaron Wagner’s first film project in Za’atari: “My Dream, My Right!”, to tell the story with the vision of the Syrian youth striving to advance as a film maker. Glen continues to be an essential element to the Colors of Love and Voices of the Children core team!

Luc Reynaud, after battling an illness, appeared for the last two days in Za’atari and transformed 12 hours into a month. Music took over the silent sound waves of the refugee camp and dance pounded love into the red earth. One girl was so inspired that she went home and returned the next day with a handwritten song that touched the hearts of all who listened. Portraits were shot with both a wild shutter and collective light from a professional eye, cameras roamed the dirt streets to share the inside lives of humans labeled “refugee”, paintings explored the psyche’s internal surrealism, and friendship rooted with creativity sprouting new hopes and dreams! A mural was painted directly onto the wall of the Save the Children/ UNICEF activity center by the girls and the boys painted on a huge canvas. One boy, who had earned the reputation of the biggest trouble maker in the center, fell in love with art and led the charge, outlining all of the images with his passion, channeled through the paintbrush and expressed his new ambition to move to Germany to become a professional artist and shocked the local staff into believers! An intercultural dialogue between Syrian and North American youth danced with colorful footprints onto three canvases of 12′ x 5′ for the art miles project, soon to be presented to the United Nations. If the next generation around the world can embody peace and express it through art, so can the adults.

Mohammad Abufara was the bicentennial man, who took on the job of 4 people at one time, quickly becoming the glue that bridged the cultural and language barriers between facilitator and student together. We could not do this without you! Aaron Wagner, an amazing teacher, who took the risk to live his dream by walking away from what was “comfortable”, made this entire experience possible for all of us. Thank you! Mohammad Al-Asmar and Save the Children Jordan really came through for us, and to the Syrian youth: you are an inspiration to all! Thank you for showing the world how courageous and beautiful humanity can be! Tears swelled in the eyes when it was time to leave… no goodbyes, but so many “until next times”. A few paragraphs could never truly express the impact this week had in the lives of us all, student and facilitator alike. Love!  Benjamin Swatez

Michael Christopher Brown Luc Reynaud Glen Taylor Shackley Mohammad Abu Frha Aaron Wagner