As the Syrian Refugee Crisis continues on, the Za’atari refugee camp in Northern Jordan has become the second largest refugee camp in the world. Founded in July 2012, the camp grew rapidly and has since reached nearly 100,000 inhabitants. While the camp is often referred to as a ‘refugee metropolis,’ the site is unmistakably destitute for such a large community. Food and proper accommodation are just two of the many human needs that the refugees are struggling to fulfill; others include constructive and productive activities for the youth. As education is not and cannot be a priority during times of strife, the children in Za’atari are faced with a bleak existence.
US artist Joel Bergners recognized this need for community building activities that would provide positive experiences in the lives of the Syrian youth, and began the Za’atari Art Project in collaboration with several Middle Eastern artists, including Yusra Ali and Ali Kiwan. In this initiative, children participate in workshops that teach them artistic techniques and social skills simultaneously as they create murals for the camp walls. Yusra Ali is a female Palestinian artist who lives in a nearby town, who combines her artistic talent with her affinity for working with children. Kiwan is a Za’atari resident who collaborated with Bergners on many murals, joining street art techniques, children art styles, and traditional arabesque patterns to reflect the unique perspectives of the camp’s youth.
The mural project provides children in the camp with an outlet through which they can express themselves, while also building relationships and learning important skills for life and art alike. Mural themes have included what the children missed most about home, what they dream of for the future, as well as the uplifting reminder that the future is in their hands. One demographic of the camp youth includes the “wheelbarrow boys,” young boys who bring items across campgrounds and sell them on the black market, a very dangerous employment for children. The art initiative taught the boys to paint, and allowed them to paint their wheelbarrows in vibrant, joyous hues, and the boys responded very well.
As a communal entity, the children and artists have created a vibrant, uplifting visual culture within the Za’atari camp, providing a source of life and energy against the dreary background of the Jordan deserts. Many of these refugees would appreciate this, as they were forced to flee their lush, green oasis of Daraa in the midst of the Syrian Civil War. The Za’atari project provides a voice to the refugee youth, who are often overlooked in the crisis. Without a decisive ceasefire in sight, and with so many struggles plaguing the refugees internationally, these murals function as a source of community and hope for the camp inhabitants.