What is the value-added of integrating storytelling and creative arts programs in education and humanitarian response programs for young people? I had the pleasure of discussing this and other important innovation topics with Film Aid, Nee Nee Productions, UNHCR Innovation and +PlusSocialGood. Lots of great lessons learned and insights were shared. This is def worth a watch. Special thanks to UNHCR Innovation for inviting #MeWeSyria and Ashoka’s Youth Venture to participate.
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.
It has been a journey, but the Syrian youth have successfully written, directed and filmed 6 short films. The youth have stories, messages and dreams to share with you. The messages have nothing to do with politics. The films are the result of communications workshops in which Syrian youth are trained to formulate key messages, produce short films and express themselves while working together to conceptualize how to make the world a better place.
The exhibition of our work will be showcased at the Young Eyes Art Center in Amman, from 14-22 June.
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.
Mohsin Mohi Ud Din
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.
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.
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.
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.
Communications workshop: Rhythm compositions, authored by the youth
After a successful workshop with the all girls group Monday, today I implemented the same introductory communications workshops with the all boys group at the Questscope caravan at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. The goals of today remained the same: explain the importance of communications, agree on a set of rules with the kids; drive home the importance of making mistakes; and open up spaces for confidence and energy through reading, playing and writing rhythm compositions. We will gradually move towards message delivery, script writing and film making.
When asked about the concept of communications, the boys’ immediate response was on the equipment and the product. This is different from the girls’ response in which they had a deeper understanding of the process of communications being important for everyday life. In the boys group, we discussed the importance of communications for connecting with your own self and with the outside world.
Similar to the girls’ group–because the outside world is coming in an taking pictures and interviews and then leaving—I had to convey that this project, through the content we’ll create, will be theirs and they have complete ownership of it. If they want to show their stories and films to the world, great. If not, great. Paramount here is building trust and opening spaces of creativity, positivity and hope. This project is not about metrics or the status quo ‘deliverables’. It is not about pleasing others. This is about empowering the youth as the agent of growth, creativity and communication.
As the boys dove in to the concept of the project, we began to experiment with learning communications through music. The boys quickly picked up the language of rhythm composition. Within an hour they were playing and reading rhythm notation. One by one, their confidence grew and they felt more and more comfortable in making mistakes and pushing forward with patience. It was important that if one boy was struggling, the others would help and teach. No matter how many times one of them could not follow along, I stopped everything and we made sure everyone took a step forward together. The boys managed to do this for one another. Sure each could play the sentences individually, but what good is it if they cannot learn to play together, in unison?
Then came the concept of expressing emotion when playing. If your angry, how would you want the drum to communicate that? If you are happy? If you are sad? One played an emotion and the others had to guess which emotion the player was trying to convey. The boys laughed at this concept, but once they were challenged to do this themselves, they started to realize how important it was. Whether true or not, most of the boys expressed emotions of happiness and excitement in how they played. Everything we are doing now with music is what we are going to replicate when we start the story writing and short films, step by step.
By the end, the boys wanted to learn even more. I was forced to teach them more than just how to read and play quarter notes and eighth notes. They wanted to up the challenges each time. In realizing how much they are capable of achieving in two hours, they could now imagine how much more they can do in the future workshops. These kids have it within them. The next phase will deal with conceptualizing story ideas and key messages for their short films.
From miles away you know you are close to the refugee camp. The barren landscape of rock and dirt gives way to a white sea of tents and caravans. The first thing you notice when entering the camp is how almost every person inside is no more than 4 feet tall. Zaatari seems a city entirely made of children–some carrying school bags, others big jugs of water, some just sitting in the shade and taking refuge from the intense sun. This is now one of the largest refugee camps in the world. Space is tight and with every inch there are thousands upon thousands of untold stories of loss, despair, separation, hope, endurance, and just about everything else.
Questscope are a brilliant NGO already working in the camps and leading innovative mentoring and informal education programs for Syrian youth. They have been kind enough to adopt my project. Through their Syrian-led mentoring program, I will be working with 20 Syrian refugee youth on the communications/arts workshops.
I got to spend good time with the Syrian youth mentors. Most of them fled from Daara in Syria. Their school and futures were cut short and many are still separated from their families. One of them is waiting to get married to his fiancee, who remains in Syria. I look forward to getting to know these amazing volunteers more over the next month.
The energy of these Syrian mentors and the child beneficiaries is obvious. Kids are reading, running, playing, and the refugees and Questscope staff are like family. Most of the Syrian mentors greet me with smiles, open arms and are very warm, not once talking about the war that has brought them here, and only talking about how beautiful Syria is.
Today was important as it was the first time I could meet the staff in person and build trust in this project. My Arabic is quite weak and unfortunatley I need a translator, but with time this will not be needed. I was able to present the project to everyone and get their feedback, after which we set up a concrete schedule to perform the workshops. I explained that I am not here to teach or preach or take pictures and runway. I conveyed that I am here to learn from them and work with them to unlock the power of creativity, hope, and perseverance. Communications and art are like roads, I told them. They help deliver what is in our hearts and open up reflection for what is around us and how to make things better. From this creativity can come open new windows for confidence, innovative solutions and new ways to tackle challenges. I stressed that the first rule of the project is to make mistakes. Mistakes are essential for fostering an environment of fearlessly pursuing creative ideas.
The Syrian mentors and counselors were excited and we agreed that I would perform the workshops 4 days each week for two hours each day. Boys and girls will have to be in separate groups but at the least the girls will be able to participate. I was concerned they would be barred from doing so. I will also make it a point to train the Syrian trainers–both male and female– in these workshops so that they too develop the skills and can carry on the workshops after I leave. This project won’t work without their ownership. The video cameras and equipment I purchased–thanks to funds from the German government–will be left with the refugees and Questscope.
So, good news is the project has the buy-in and clearance of Syrian youth coordinators and the Questscope NGO in Zaatari. There is no real bad news other than my concern on how this project will be received by the Syrian youth and their families. Cultural traditions and social tensions may threaten the success of the workshops. Time will tell. One thing is for sure: the Syrians I met with today are resilient, smiling and eager to learn and rise above the trauma and tragedy that is keeping them from their families, homes and normal lives.
In a place born from fresh tragedies, there are pockets of human resilience and enduring compassion. Let’s see how the project goes.
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!!