This last week I have been painting with Syrian children living in refugee camps in Jordan.
On Monday we awoke early for the dusty drive to the vast Za’atari camp in Northern Jordan, home to 85,000 Syrian refugees. After being thoroughly checked at security, we were driven to one of the educational centres in the camp.
The centres are overseen by OYW Ambassador Danijel Cuturic, who is a Bosnian refugee himself. Relief International supports the education of 2,000 children in the camp. These centres are a safe haven, where they can play sport and resume their education disrupted by war.
The first group to participate were 30 young Syrian girls, who timidly filed into the classroom with shy smiles. I gave them all paper and pencils to draw with before painting onto the large canvas together. Their drawings were heart-breaking.
The first canvas was an expression of the children’s experience of war. After a number of groups of boys and girls had painted on it, the canvas had become an abstract chaos of splashes of red paint, dark colours and layers of the children’s drawings of tanks, soldiers, dead bodies, planes and destroyed homes. It is a small glimpse of all that the children witnessed in war-torn Syria.
Speaking Arabic has been invaluable for coordinating the project. Many of the children confessed to me that they did not want to think about or paint the war any more. Therefore, the second canvas we painted together was a vibrant expression of their memories of Syria. I drew inspiration from Islamic art and arabesque design, to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of the Middle East, so often forgotten and overshadowed by war.
At the end of the first day, we discovered that we had been using the wrong paint that would not wash off with water. Laughing, the girls led me outside and scrubbed my hands and feet clean with white spirit!
After a couple of days at Za’atari, the art project moved to Azraq refugee camp, in the midst of a desolate desert wasteland on the Saudi and Iraqi border.
I was deeply touched by the affection from the children and by their countless hugs and kisses at the end of each day. I am learning the truth of Anne Frank’s words that ‘no one has ever become poor by giving.’
The canvases painted by the Syrian children in Jordan will be exhibited in The Crypt Gallery of St Pancreas Church 18–21 June, alongside Hannah’s refugee portrait paintings. For more of Hannah’s artwork, click here.
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