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.
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.