Graffiti battles giants in a Syrian refugee camp

Por Carolina Montenegro

Yesterday it became official: Syrian are the biggest group of refugees in the world today. The United Nations declared that the civil war in Syria has made 3.9 million people to flee abroad, while another 7.6 million Syrians are displaced inside their own country.

The gruesome total amounts to almost 11 million people. It is the first time Syrians are leading this sad ranking. For decades Afghanistan and Somalia were the first countries source of refugees in the world. And it is also the first time that the number of refugees and displaced in the world is so big: 60 millions people in 2014. This means 1 person in each 122 in the planet has been forced to leave home. This amounts to the population of Italy.

But even Mathematics, an exact science, here fails in face of such horror. And the true number of Syrians refugees and displaced is estimated to be at least twice bigger. Many people that crossed the border to neighboring countries prefer not to register or to disclose their situation to authorities over fear of persecution and due to a true wish to go back to Syria when the war ends. If an exact science can only bring skepticism and worries, art seems to remain shedding some light into this impossible path to peace. Not out of naïveté or foolishness nor even out of optimism.

Art brings hope because it goes beyond barriers and borders; it has no language. It can forever fight giants when all there is are millstones, like Don Quixote once showed. Fiction, madness? No, not at all. In Zaatari refugee camp in the middle of the desert in Jordan, a group of people is doing exactly that: fighting one giant per day. How? Think of graffiti.

The project is an initiative of the organization aptART, with the artist Joel Bergner ahead of it. Joel is a nomadic artist, educator and advocate for social change. “Art is a way to achieve what is impossible other way”, he said, mentioning his last trip. Born and raised in the US, Joel, 36, lived in Cuba, Brasil, Kenya, Mexico, El Salvador and the Middle East in the last few years. He talked to from.sham.with love via Skype from his place in New York. He had just arrived from a workshop in Israel where Palestinians and Israelis teens worked together creating graffiti to be paitend in murals. Some of them were seeing the “other side of the wall” for the first time in their lives. “Kids were talking to each other, they got to know each other. It can lead to a change some day in the future”, said Joel.

In Zaatari –one of the biggest refugees camp in the world hosting almost 83,000 Syrians—graffiti is likewise a bridge to the future. Since 2013, Joel traveled to Zaatari three times to work with a team of Syrian refugees, artists and educators. The project is a partnership of aptART, ACTED, UNICEF, ECHO and Mercy Corps.

Aerial view of Zaatari refugee camp, in Jordan.
Aerial view of Zaatari refugee camp, in Jordan.

“The art workshop with kids is very important in places like this, because refugees tend to stay stuck in the past and there are few structured activities and educational programs for the youth to engage in”, told Joel adding also as challenge the lack of opportunities for refugee voices to reach out to the world to tell their own stories.

The Za’atari Project organizes workshops with refugee children with focus on art and educational topics. To decide what will be painted in the murals, they meet in groups to talk and they have lectures about hygiene and sanitation issues in the camp and water conservation in their new desert climate, among other topics.

Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp, 2014: A River in Za’atari, created with local children. @Joel Bergner
A River in Za’atari, created with local children. @Joel Bergner

The children also explore conflict resolution and have an opportunity to debate and express their hopes and dreams for the future of their country and themselves. “The murals will stay there reinforce their message. But another important thing that can last is the experience children have in these workshops with adults and artists of their own community. After situations of trauma, like the ones people live in wars, this is very important”, explained Joel.

Before doing graffiti in murals, he was involved with social work and poor communities. “I did some teenagers counseling and worked in prisons too. I always loved art since a little kid. After, I choose graffiti because I wanted to do some kind of artwork more public”, said Joel.

The project also aims to change the lives of the adult facilitators. They are mostly local artists and educators that learn how to organize and lead their own community-based arts and education projects. Persons like Ali, a refugee and artist who showed to Joel how to draw Arabic patterns. “We exchanged techniques and he thought the kids new skills”, told Joel.

Most Syrian artists in Zaatari are painters, but they face a hard time to find resources and work. While hosted in neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, Syrian refugees have restricted access to the formal job market by law barriers and they have also no political rights. Besides economics worries these countries’ governments fear a new religious and ethnical reshape could imbalance their current “stable” situation.

“I plan to start an organization to work with local artists for them to continue the artwork by themselves. The most important thing in places afflicted by conflict and poverty is Art to come from inside their own communities, to raise their voice”, said Joel.

Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp, 2014, “I dream of…” full mural: local kids participated in this mural, expressing their dreams for the future. Photo by AptART.
Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp, 2014, “I dream of…” full mural: local kids participated in this mural, expressing their dreams for the future. Photo by AptART.

In April, photographies of Joel’s workshops in Zaatari were exhibited at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

Joel Bergner’s website:


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