#MeWeSyria: Syrian refugee youth persevere

Here are some pictures taken while leading #MeWeSyria communications workshops in the #Zaatari refugee camp. Syrian refugee youth–enduring harsh sun and desert weather–bravely managed to write and direct their own films about hardships, hope, equality, and their dreams. The boys and girls groups, pictured below, successfully completed 4 short films of their own. Thanks to Jamie from the @Questscope NGO. Questscope kindly hosted my project and are leading incredible mentoring and informal education programs inside Zaatari refugee camp.

 

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Final workshops in Zaatari: #MeWeSyria

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Just led my final ‪#‎MeWeSyria‬ communications workshop with the boys group in ‪the #‎Zaatari‬ refugee camp w/ Questscope. Some of the youth are bummed our program is almost over, but they are buzzing with excitement and confidence in the stories, messages and films we pulled together. The‪#‎refugee‬ youth have taken brave steps in breaking mental walls for expression, communications & imagination over the last month. I am in awe of the resilience and love within these kids. I am so proud to have gotten to work with them. In total, the boys and girls groups have finished writing, directing and filming 6 short stories—each with key messages and lessons, and of course NO politics. While the politics of the world may fail their homeland, the youth of Syria will not fail our world.

#MeWeSyria exhibition at Young Eyes gallery is this Saturday, 14-22 June. I am also putting on a screening in the refugee camp on Monday. Keep these beautiful kids in your prayers. Stay tuned for more and click on #MeWeSyria on Twitter to learn more…

Update from refugee youth: Lighting a candle instead of cursing the dark

 

After three weeks of intense communications with the workshops with the Syrian refugee youth, I am happy to say that that the youth have started directed and filming their short stories. Above is a short highlight reel showing the some of the talents, smiles and hope being carried in the youth of Syria through the Me/We communications workshops.

I cannot stress how much growth and progress we have fought for in recent weeks. There is much more work ahead of us as we continue filming and crafting stories with positive messages and lessons, as conceptualized by the refugee youth. I anticipate the momentum will continue. Plans are in place to put on an exhibition of the refugees’ messages at the Young Eyes Gallery in Amman from 17-24 June. I am trying to secure permissions for the refugees to leave the camps and attend.

The youth have a deeper understanding about how important communciations is and they are realizing new avenues for self expression, critical  thinning, team work, confidence and hope. None of the workshops or stories are political or religious in nature. This project is not about sides. It is about realizing the collective humanity to which we all equally belong.

Skeptics may say this is just a cute project and no big deal. To them I paraphrase a Chinese proverb that says it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. We are empowering youth to light the candle for themselves, their communities and for our greater world.

Our world may be failing them, but they will not fail our world.

 

*Me/We has been funded by the German government and supported by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, and by the dedicated local staff and coordinators working in Zaatari refugee camp and Zarqa: Questscope and Family Guidance Awareness Center.

Zaatari workshops are hosted by the local NGO, Questscope—funded by the EU and UNESCO, OCHA. Support Questscope’s important and successful mentoring programs for refugee youth here: http://www.questscope.org. Logistical support provided by UNFPA.

Zarqa workshops are hosted by the Family Guidance Awareness Center, FGAC.

Volunteers and coordinators making Me/We a success: Manal Jbhour, Khaled Jbhour, Young Eyes Center (Khaled and Issa), Manahil and Abdur Rahman (FGAC), Nadeen and Ashraf (Questscope), Dareen (UNFPA).

Me/We workshops founded by Mohsin Mohi Ud Din (UNAOC Fellow and Fulbright Scholar alum).

Resilience and imagination

Zaatari is not a zoo. Zaatari is not a gateway for NGOs to just have something to do or to get funding. It is not a badge of honor or a cool social media post. It is a temporary home for many who do not want to be there. It is an ocean of white tents sheltering over 100,000 families from the angry sun. It is rocks and dust of a country not their own. The Syrian people here are enduring loss, a permanent state of loss. We all know that, sure. But perhaps we are desensitized to the rubble that piles each day as the world continues to fail the women and children of Syria. Even so, what is remarkable about Zaatari is not its scale…its stories of loss. What is remarkable is the resilience of the human spirit of the Syrian mothers, fathers, boys and girls and youth. I witness this each day as I continue with the communications/arts workshops for the youth.

In its third week, the workshops are now moving to the challenging phase of pulling story ideas for films that are to be directed and filmed by the youth in Zaatari. In both the boys and girls group, the concept of sharing a story idea and using the imagination to cultivate a positive end is confusing. Some were even frustrated by the exercise. “Think of an ending as you wish to it to be, not as it is expected to be,” I tell them. They struggled with this question. “Imagination? What does that mean?” I point to the light bulb in the room. “The people who discovered electricity and invented light were crazy enough to imagine something new. Before this, there was dark. The internet? Even crazier. Now we are all connected.” Imagination fuels creativity, innovation, and ultimately a world that rises above the walls and barriers of body and mind.

“There walls around us now in this room and around Zaatari,” I tell the groups. “ But in the mind and the heart, we must not have walls. Instead we have keys to solutions, lessons, new ideas.”

With patience and a bit of pushing, both groups in Zaatari came up with four story ideas for filming this week. All it takes is one spark, one idea. Blank papers and confused eyes then give way to ink on paper and energetic collaboration.

The girls group today in Zaatari came up with the following film ideas:

A rich boy mistreats a poor boy in need. The poor boy struggles in life, but ends up being sponsored by a man who helps him get an education and a job. Later in life, the poor boy becomes rich and sees that the other rich boy is now poor. The lesson: treat every one equally and with respect, because  one who is rich can just as easily become poor. The story is also about forgiveness. This was a particularly interesting group because I asked the girls why they chose a male lead character. “How can a Muslim girl have a job and live all alone?,” they asked. We challenged this concept by saying the story should not be restricted to cultural conventions if they do not want it to be. They are now debating which route to take.

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The other group of girls came up with a story about how a blind girl is mistreated and discriminated against. They chose to do a story on blindness because it is a problem they noticed a lot in Syria. The protagonist does not give up in the face of ridicule and ends up becoming a world famous composer, earning enough money to get an eye operation that allows her to see.

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The boys groups in Zaatari developed the following stories:

– A group of talented soccer players are forced from Syria due to war and violence. They end up in Zaatari where they can only play on rocks and desert. They are so talented though that they become the local soccer champions of Zaatari. They are at risk of giving up soccer because there is no safe field to play on and a persistent lack of water. Upon a visit from the Jordanian national soccer team, the Zaatari team challenges the national team’s coach to a charity match. If the Zaatari team wins, the Jordanian team will build a proper soccer facility for the youth in Zaatari. The story will end with the boys back in Syria, playing for the national team.

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– The other boys group developed a story about an uncle who loses one of his legs from a bomb blast in Syria. In Zaatari, he is not able to afford a prosthetic leg. He dreams of walking again but those around him do not support his dreams. He then has an idea of how to build his own prosthetic and ends up back in Syria teaching others how to make their own, and how to walk again.

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Sufficed to say, I am in awe of the human spirit within the Syrian youth. In the next few weeks I will lead these groups in directing and filming each short story in Zaatari. The challenge will be how to film all the scenes inside the compound of Zaatari. As I understand it, it will not be safe to travel outside the caravan with cameras. Stay tuned and follow our progress. I am also teaming up with a local gallery called Young Eyes to put on a exhibition and screening of the youth’s work.

* These workshops would not be possible without the support of the staff of Questscope, who are leading mentoring programs and youth education programs inside Zaatari. Learn more about how to support Questscope here.

*This project is my own independent initiative known as the Me/We Initiative. Project support for Jordan has come from the German government, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and UNFPA.

Refugees making bold moves in Zarqa

 

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Today I began the first batch of communications workshops–under the ‘Me/We’ initiative I founded– with Syrian refugees at the Family Guidance Awareness Center in Zarqa.

As with the introductory communications workshops at Zaatari refugee camp, the first hour was spent exploring the concept of communications with the refugee youth, and setting up a safe space for making mistakes and trying new things. The kids nailed the music workshops and grew increasingly excited at their new found ability to read, write and play their own rhythm compositions.

Most extraordinary about today’s workshops was how the kids dove into the video and story writing. We set a goal of coming out with 2 to 3 short films written and directed by them. To start, I split the kids in groups of 2. The stories could be on any topic of their choice, with one condition: the stories must end with something positive and should challenge the audience to take away a lesson from their story.

Immediately, the girls began drafting stories about their journey from Syria to Jordan. Things began to take a graphic turn among the girls’ group. They began sharing stories of the violence they saw and the horrific stories they heard. The flood gates opened and I was not going to stop them from expressing what they have been holding inside, no matter how unpleasant. Their stories of violence were even told with some humor, oddly enough. Many of the girls wrote of how they saw the army take young kids and cut their heads of in front of their mothers. Many were forced to flee after young men were being kidnapped and murdered, leaving the women without protection. Others wrote about the difficult journey they endured to flee the violence in Syria. These girls clearly felt the need to teach the world about just how bad it is in Syria. Just as they were allowed to express their stories of hardship on paper, I challenged the groups to tie the stories to a positive transition in which they wrote of the things they wish to see, and how they hope to change the world around them for the better. Debates and ideas bounced around the room on how to make things better and how each wishes to see an end to the violence and a return to their homes.

Just as the girls were delving into video ideas about their journeys from Syria, the boys group had a different approach. I pre-selected the boy’s first video/ communications project. Hamza is an 11 year old Syrian refugee who happens to be blind. In order to challenge how people see Hamza– and to strengthens Hamza’s story telling and communications abilities— Hamza will be writing and directing his own short film, supported by the all boys team.

It was difficult to get Hamza to speak up and take the lead since most everyone around him felt the need to speak for him, as if Hamza lacked the ability to speak for himself. But with patient guidance, we pushed Hamza to start speaking out and taking the lead. He will be directing a story about his life: what keeps him happy, what gives him strength and what he wants to be when he grows up. He wants to be a doctor some day.

 

Today started with awkward silence, but by the end of the three hour workshops, the room was filled with positive energy and the noise of creativity and ambition. Forward we march.

In solidarity,

Mohsin Mohi Ud Din

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The workshops I am embarking on would not be possible without the help of my main facilitator Manal and the volunteers at the Family Guidance Awareness Center in Zarqa: Manahil, Noor and Ayoub. A special thanks to Sara Demeter for connecting me to FGAC. She has her own organization for empowering youth called: Arts Resource Collaborative for Kids.

Discovering a network of ‘Young Eyes’

Sometimes the universe leads you to places you need to be, and if your eyes and heart are open, sometimes the universe connects you to people to make positive change.

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By total accident, I have met two young Syrian and Palestinian artists who have opened an arts center near my apartment in Amman. Their center is called Young Eyes, and it is run by Khaled and Esa. Khaled left Syria after his office was nearly bombed by rebels. Esa has been in Jordan most of his life. His family were forced to leave to Gaza decades ago. Both have put there savings into this arts center.

The center provides a perfect space for putting on an exhibition of the refugees’  work for the local community. The center also provides a great space for conducting my communications workshops.

I am now in talks with Young Eyes to put on an exhibit showcasing the films, talent and content of the refugee youth I am working with in the Zaatari and Zarqa. This is an ambitious task, since I am short on time with the kids and we have yet to start writing and recording their films. My goal now is to have a minimum of 4 short films from the youth in Zaatari and a minimum of 2 films from the youth in Zarqa.

I am now adding a second of group of kids to work with, who are Syrian and Palestinian from Zarqa. I am going to rent a bus to bring refugee kids from Zarqa to the arts center in Amman every Saturday so that they have a fresh and stimulating environment to work on their films and stories. At this point, I am going into my own money to make this happen because I think the results will be fantastic. These Saturday workshops will be in addition to the ones I am doing four days a week with the refugees in Zaatari, through the NGO Questscope.

Additional challenges will be having the kids’ consent to show their work and stories to the greater world. Of course, without their consent, the films will not be shown publicly. My next workshops however will convey the importance of sharing their work to their community and to the outside world. While many of the refugees in Zaatari cannot leave the camp, they can still bring the world to them and connect to the world around them through their films and stories.

Oh yeah, did I mention I only have 4 weeks and very little money left to do all this?

I came here not knowing much anyone, nor what the next steps would be for the project. Jordan, and much of the Middle East for that matter, is one of those places where the only plan one can have is no plan. Flexibility and patience are key. So far, running in the dark has led me to accidentally bump into some great ideas and fantastic activists and artists already here.

The drive, talent and bravery of some of the young people here in Jordan is extraordinary.

Let’s see how this pans out.

In solidarity,

Mohsin Mohi Ud Din

 

PS, through Young Eyes I got to meet and hang out with an 18 old graffiti artists named Bourghali. His family is originally from Aleppo, Syria. He showed me some of the murals he did for a play about great Arab thinkers of days past.

The artist
The artist