CREATIVE REFUGE I: AptART

Since March, my time in Amman has been dedicated to launching and growing Sound It Out! (SIO) the music and theatre based language learning program that I introduced in my last post. Now in its third month, the project has begun to find its rhythm. Each week, a local staff of musicians, theatre artists and language instructors collaborate to offer 25 music and theater sessions for 400 displaced and disadvantaged children in Jordan.

The SIO team is currently working on a short video piece about the project, which I look forward to sharing once complete. In the meantime, I’m excited to introduce “Creative Refuge”, a summer long blog series examining other music, theatre and arts initiatives that work with refugee youth in Jordan.

AptART’s Camp Colors

Zaatari Refugee Camp, AptART 2014.

Jordan is among the most water poor places in the world. According to the United Nations, any country with an annual water supply of less than 500 cubic meters (cm) per person is considered to have “absolute scarcity” of water. Jordan’s annual per capita supply registers at just under 150cm.

The influx of some 600,000 Syrian refugees over the past three years has exacerbated the water crisis. With up to 3,000 new refugees crossing into Jordan each day, the government has began to utilize additional – yet limited – water resources that cost the country upwards of $700 million each year.

In Zaatari, Jordan’s largest Syrian refugee camp, UNICEF trucks in 3.5 million liters of water daily, which provides each camp resident with 35 liters per day (as a point of comparison, US residents consume an average of 340 liters daily).

Yet unlike Jordanians, many Syrians are unaccustomed to worrying about water. According to the International Environmental Performance Index, Syria has double the access to natural water resources when compared to neighboring Jordan. As such, a general unawareness about water scarcity has often translated into practices of poor water use among residents in Zaatari.

In searching for solutions, the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED) – one of the three main water resource providers in Zaatari – turned to an unlikely source: Street art.

“Don’t Waste Water. Water is Life.” Zaatari Refugee Camp, AptART 2014.

Wishing Wells

In 2013, ACTED partnered with the international organization AptART (Awareness & Prevention Through Art) to create a street art project addressing issues of camp water waste, washroom facility misuse and personal hygiene. The result is an on-going children’s art program that uses street art as a means of education, engagement and action.

Most of the AptART murals in Zaatari begin with educational children’s workshops, where participants learn about critical issues facing their community – like water conservation. Following interactive discussions, children draw pictures to express and communicate the workshop topics creatively. Their pictures are then used as inspiration for large-scale murals, which children help paint and complete.

In addition to discussing community problems, the mural projects offer youth in Zaatari with much-needed opportunities for structured-learning, self-expression and play. While more than half of the camp’s 100,000 residents are under the age of 18, few attend school. With limited opportunities for youth development, children often pass time idly in the streets.

“We’re trying to add color to their lives,” says AptART founder and Director Samantha Robison, “lives that can be otherwise very dim and difficult.”

AptART has also worked with ACTED to promote community cohesion casino online and respect for camp facilities. In our recent interview, Robison remarked: “In the camp’s first months, washrooms were literally being dissembled overnight, brick by brick. There was little concern for shared spaces and so vital camp resources like washrooms suffered.”

”Our Bathroom”, Zaatari Refugee Camp, AptART 2013.

Robison and her team have been working with children to paint washrooms throughout Zaatari. Murals like the one above – where children added their handprints alongside the text “our bathroom”– help promote a sense of ownership over shared camp facilities. No longer plain white trailers or square brick huts, the painted washrooms are now meaningful community symbols that represent the people who use them.

Over the past year, AptART’s work in Zaatari has grown to include projects outside of the program’s initial focus on water and sanitation. Recent murals, like “Syria is still in me”, strive to promote cultural identity and memory of life before the war. Others, like “I Dream Of…” – a mural in which children wrote and painted their dreams within larger images of two sleeping children – aim to promote forward and positive thinking among the camp’s youth.

“I Dream Of…”, Zaatari Refugee Camp, AptArt, 2014.

AptART’s highly visible imprint on life in Zaatari raises important questions about the role of arts programming in the humanitarian context. In particular, it is interesting to note that the AptART team is predominately an international one.

In this way, AptART evokes a long tradition of cross-cultural arts programming in which cultural producers travel abroad to help those deemed to be vulnerable or in-need. Work of this nature often relies on a tired narrative in which an emphasis on the universality of art can undermine or distract from the need to consider matters of cultural relevancy and trespassing.

When asked about how the AptART team negotiates such issues, the thoughtful and engaged Robison points first to project’s focus on collaboration. “We work in collaboration with artists that live in Zaatari and I’m proud of the opportunities we’re creating for them through our cash-for-work program.”

“Birds Have No Borders” Zaatari Refugee Camp, AptART 2014.

Robison mentioned several artists in particular, including Zaatari resident Ali Kiwan, who gives AptART workshops on traditional Arab drawing techniques to children in the camp. Kiwan is also responsible for the geometric, arabesque elements incorporated into many of AptART’s recent murals.

Program coordinator Leah O’Bryant also emphasizes the organization’s commitment to community engagement and ownership: “We realize camp walls aren’t our walls. Before we begin a new piece, we find a Zaatari street leader – essentially a community organizer – to give input about things like the mural topic and location.”

Similar sensitivities shape the organization’s approach to programming outside of Zaatari. With support from ACTED, UNICEF and the Humanitarian Aid department of the European Commission (ECHO), AptART recently completed an eight-week mural project with urban refugee and host community children throughout northern Jordan. The aim of the project was to defuse growing tensions between the two communities by addressing critical issues of shared importance.

“My house is your house”. Zaatari Village, AptART, 2014.

Ten communities with a high population density of Syrian refugees were chosen to participate. “We began each mural by conducting focus groups with adults from the surrounding areas. We asked them to pick the issues that they felt were most important to the neighborhood.” Community leaders and government officials then helped the group to find wall space.

AptART went on to create more than two-dozen murals with the help of nearly 1,000 children. Mural titles include “Sharing is caring”, “Friendship has no borders”, “I am the future”, and “Be clean. Be happy.”

“We try to use street art as a sort of community messaging system,” Robison adds. “Messages from the community, for the community.”

To learn more about AptART’s work in Jordan, visit www.aptart.org

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