In life, there are things we cannot control: where we are born; the color of our skin; our parents; or the rapid pace of change in our personal lives and in our societies.
On the other hand, stories, by nature, are free. In the face of uncontrollable variables, every person, young and old, possesses the power of narrative and the ability to formulate new realities and ideas. Stories are blank canvases in which the author is in control, using the past and the imagination to create a new reality.
When it comes to the story of Syria, and how the international community and Syrians themselves interact with it, it’s no surprise that extremists, political plays, and tragedy colonize the narrative space. It’s also not surprising that the production and consumption of stories of suffering, fear, and violence results in the international community’s desensitization to Syrians’ plight and of refugee youth from numerous communities. But less obvious is the risk of Syrian and other refugee youth accepting a world of consequences instead of innovating a world choices, for an entire generation. This risk carries direct implications for humanitarian efforts and for sustainable peace and development.
A story can be a simulator, where anyone can practice control, exercise imagination, build empathy, and test a range of human conditions, failures, and triumphs.
For most of us, the push of a ‘record’ button on a camera, the push of a key, the ink on a piece of paper seem as though they are insignificant acts. But words and the process of connecting feelings and ideas to paper and media have power.
Check out recent pieces produced and shot by young Syrian refugees from the Darb-Syr community organization in Gaziantep, Turkey during Youth Venture’s #MeWeSyria program. What you see is a finished story, but the real story is what transpired as young Syrians stepped into their stories and connected mind and heart with their breaths. Through collaborative storytelling exercises, young Syrians practiced working in creative teams, leadership, creative problem-solving skills, and connected passions with problems. What was built was not just a video, but a tangible youth-led space for empathy and ideas sharing that lasts beyond the actual days of the workshops and trainings. … READ MORE ON UNHCR
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.
In the usual discourse, stories about refugees tend to be driven by numbers. Thirty-five: the amount of liters of water allowed per person, per day in the Za’atari refugee camp for Syrian refugees. Five-hundred thousand: the approximate number of Syrian refugees in Jordan. Four hundred: the number of Syrians crossing into Jordan on most days. Seventeen: the average number of years people in the world are living as refugees. But there is something beyond the numbers that does not get visibility.
While implementing the MeWe communications workshops for Syrian refugees, I recently had the privilege of getting to know Syrian youths living inside Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp and in the city of Zarqa. Here is what I felt and saw: resistance and the courage to hope.
No, I do not mean ‘resistance’ in the sense of politics and warfare. Instead, I am speaking of resistance to arresting one’s life to darkness and giving-up. I saw resistance when meeting a refugee in Za’atari setting up his room inside a caravan in order to properly receive his wife, who is still across the border in Syria. Resistance is mustering the courage and discipline to go to class in the refugee camp, walking through dust storms under the hot sun, just to try and learn something new. Resistance is celebrating the birth of a child in the camp; openly remembering home; and thinking of your dreams before the war and how to pursue them after it. It’s sharing your 35 liters of water with a neighbor in more need of it. Resistance is cracking a smile in the face of darkness. These are are moments of the human sprit that weather the world’s failures everyday. Beyond the ‘burden’ narrative surrounding refugees, everyday in places like Za’atari, refugees are choosing to live and give back to the world, instead of taking from it or cursing it as the dominant narrative seems to portray.
I have been leading communications workshops for refugee youth, and in the process have see their brilliance and spirit of resistance first hand. Over the course of six weeks, six short films were written, directed and performed by the refugees themselves. These films share some of the insights, stories and dreams for their future. Everything in this project — from how the camera is held to the messages — is a product of the hearts, minds and hard work of the refugee youth. None of the stories were political. Instead, they explored topics of not giving up on one’s dreams, discrimination against people with disabilities, and the importance of hope.
The initial workshops started with awkward silence, empty pages and frustrated sighs. Throughout the intensive workshops, the refugee youth were challenged to debate the significance of communications, to make mistakes, and to open up spaces for confidence and self expression. The biggest barriers I noticed were in the youth’s lack of ability to imagine and think beyond the physical and political conditions imposed upon them. Many did not know what imagination was or why it was important. The same was true for the concept of communications.
By the end of the workshops however, the room was filled with positive energy and the noise of creativity and ambition. Each smile cracked away at anxiety, lack of self confidence and fear. It is these tiny cracks that eventually let the light in. “There may be concrete walls around us now in this room and around Za’atari, refugee camp,” I told the groups. “In the mind and the heart, we must not have walls. Instead, we have keys to solutions, lessons, new ideas.”
Inch by inch, we hammered at these barriers and gradually moved towards message delivery, script writing and film making. All the while, the workshops reminded the youth that in order to change our own condition, as well as that of our world, we must learn to first listen and speak to ourselves, and then we must speak to the world. None of the messages were violent or political.
The films are currently in a public exhibition at the Young Eyes Gallery in Amman, Jordan. The urban refugees from Zarqa attended the opening last week and proudly presented their messages to the community. Since the Za’atari refugees were unable to get the necessary permissions to leave the camp, we put on a cinema and presentation inside the refugee camp at Questscope’s caravan. (See the #MeWeSyria video above about the final screenings.)
What is the point of all this, really? Why do all this? One man provided me the answer to these questions. “It is better to light a candle than to curse the dark,” he said.
The barriers are perceived as unbreakable, but what I found was that barriers can and will be broken down all the time, all around us. The world may be failing the youth of Syria by not realizing peace, but the youth of Syria will not fail the world.
*This project would not have been possible without the support of the German government, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, UNFPA, the Family Guidance Awareness Center, the staff and brilliant volunteers of Questscope — supported by UNESCO and EU — and the Young Eyes Arts Center.
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).
I am two days away from departing to Jordan to begin my arts diplomacy workshops for Syrian refugee youth.
It is crunch time and I feel like I am running in the dark. I still have not secured a place to live nor do I know how I am getting around. I do know that transportation in Jordan will be expensive. I have secured clearance to work with youth in the Zatari refugee camp and also with an NGO in Zarqa. As is the case with the Middle East, I cannot define a clear work schedule until I am there in person with the staff and partners. This is a bit scary as I am flying in Sunday and I will need to move fast in order to implement this project in the 40 day timeline. Off into the great unknown.
Other than those worries, I have purchased most of the equipment for the workshops. All of this equipment will be donated to the refugee youth so that they can continue learning and creating. For $1,000 I got two camcorders, 2 digital cameras, an instant camera, SD cards, and other things. There is still more to buy before I leave Sunday. Pressure is on!!