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On “World Refugee Day,” Syrians tell their stories through art

AMMAN- After setting up paintings in “Sakeyat Addarawish,” a café in Weibdeh, a neighborhood in Amman, Mohammad Jokhadar began to play the Oud and sing traditional Syrian songs that transported his audience to the land he was forced to flee not long ago.

AMMAN- After setting up paintings in “Sakeyat Addarawish,” a café in Weibdeh, a neighborhood in  Amman, Mohammad Jokhadar began to play the Oud and sing traditional Syrian songs that transported his audience to the land he was forced to flee not long ago. 

Refugees of all nationalities and ages came together to display their artwork at the art exhibition organized by Mercy Corps to commemorate World Refugee Day on Tuesday, June 25th.

Mohammad Jokhader plays the oud in “Sayekat Addarawish,” Tuesday June 25th. Source: Mohammad Abdulsattar Ibrahim

Jokhader, A Syrian refugee from Homs, displayed 70 paintings, 20 of which had been drawn by Syrian children living in al-Zaatari refugee camp in North Jordan, who were unable to make it to the event for various reasons, according to Jokhader. 

The paintings made by the children are a result of an educational program overseen by Jokhader in al-Zaatari, with support from Mercy Corps. “[The program] is inclusive of children with disabilities,” and is meant to empower them to “[express themselves] in their own styles and ways, through their brush and canvas,” Jokhader said. 

“I want to play, learn, and make friends.” A painting by a child living in al-Zaatari. Source: Mohammad Abdulsattar Ibrahim

Jokhader had also participated in a charitable Bazaar coordinated by UNHCR in Jordan on June 20th, which brought together refugees of various nationalities, in addition to Jordanian artists, to display and sell their artwork.

“There were 53 different [stalls] in the bazaar, as well as 147 participants of different nationalities: Sudanese, Somalian, Iraqi, Syrian, and some Jordanian artists,” Nada’ Yassin, the external relations officer at UNHCR in Jordan, told Syria Direct. 

Participants in the charitable bazaar organized by UNHCR in Jordan. Source: Faris Qasiysih 

Events such as the exhibition give their participants an opportunity to encounter ideas from other cultures and  meet people outside of refugee camps, such as al-Zaatari, in which Jokhader lives alongside tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees.

“As a camp resident, I find that these artistic events give me a chance to meet other people,” Jokhader said. “I benefit from the cultural and intellectual exchange, as well by making new friendships, which helps us break [out of] our seclusion. [the events] also give us the opportunity to display and sell [our paintings].”

Jokhader and the children’s paintings tell the story of their flight from Syria, dealing with the reasons behind their journeys, as well as their lives in al-Zaatari today. Through their artwork, they are able to communicate to the world their experiences as refugees, as well as their aspirations for the future. 

“As an artist, I have a responsibility just like [journalists and writers] do. It’s my role to relate this story to a canvas,” Jokhader said. 

In addition to helping refugees feel integrated into their host countries, initiatives such as the art bazaar help host communities understand refugees better and combat negative stereotypes about them. 

“The goal of the bazaars is to introduce people to the refugee community and to shed light on their professionalism and craftsmanship, in addition to highlight the unique skills they have,” Yassin told Syria Direct.

World Refugee Day

While hate speech against Syrian refugees escalates in other countries, Jordan stands out as a rare example of a tolerant host country. Syrians have been working alongside Jordanians for years, despite the difficult economic situation which has faced the kingdom recently. 

When Abdulrahman Abu Abra arrived in Jordan in 2013, he did not feel ostracized as he had expected to. “[Our] situation did not change … Jordan and [Syria] are one country, they are both [constitute] the Levant,” he said.

Abu Abra, a 40-year-old father of four from East Ghouta, told Syria Direct: “I don’t [think] that the word ‘refugee’ carries an insulting meaning, nor can I recall any insult [towards me] having to do with my status as a refugee [here].”
“However, we have all been suffering from the economic situation and reduction in [international] aid in recent years.” 

Yassin told Syria Direct that “Despite Jordan’s limited resources, it still helps refugees and provides them with humanitarian assistance. Other countries must take Jordan as an example of how to treat refugees.”

Abu Abra, who makes his livelihood by painting and engraving wood, was able to show a collection of his Damascene style painting and engraving wood at the UNHCR bazaar last month.

Despite Jordan’s positive treatment of Syrian refugees, World Refugee Day stirs emotion in Abu Abra. “It puts a lump in my throat. [It] makes me relive painful memories of home and of being displaced. I hope I get to return to Syria, but currently, it’s hard [to return].”

Jokhader has similar feelings about World Refugee Day.
“It hurts me so much … It reminds me of the tragedy and that I am a refugee.” 

According to a report published by the UN on June 19th, 2019, the number of forcibly displaced peoples around the world exceeded 70 million people in 2018, the highest number of displaced people seen by the UNHCR since its establishment 70 years ago. Among those 70 million, 41.3 million are internally displaced, 25.9 million are refugees, and 3.5 million are asylum seekers (currently seeking refugee status). 

UNHCR estimates there to be 664,222 Syrian refugees in Jordan, 84% of which live in urban areas, whereas the remaining 16% live in three refugee camps: al-Zaatari, al-Azraq, and the Emarati-Jordanian camp.



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