Sunday, March 31, 2013

Teaching Art at Zaatri Refugee Camp in Jordan

 Zaatri Refugee Camp, Jordan. Ten kilometers of crushed gravel, tents and razor wire.

Fourteen year old Arwa is wearing a sparkly blue scarf and white socks covered in dust. She looks up at me with sweet brown eyes and shows me her drawing. An intensely coloured red heart ripped apart by a knife and a vast pool of dripping blood. "Can you write 'Syria Bleeding' in English for me please" she asks. I do this. Then I find her another piece of paper and she draws a beautiful farm with fruit trees and flowers and a river. Over the next four days Arwa will become my friend and occasional translator. Unlike most of the Syrian refugees I meet this week she speaks better English than I do Arabic. She also loves to make art.  I give her art supplies to take home. Home, for now, is a tent in a dusty desert amidst thousands of other tents at Zaatri Refugee Camp near the Jordanian border with Syria. 

As I write this I have just finished my four days at Zaatri and am sitting once again in my comfy and familiar room near the Dead Sea. I travel to Jordan from Seattle twice a year to teach art to rural women for a couple of weeks at a time. This year I added a week to help with the Syrian refugee crisis in the only way I know how - with art. 

I admit I am very tired and my eyes feel dried out from the dust and wind at the camp.I tried to remember to drink water while I worked but the staff I was with didn’t drink or eat in front of the refugees. There was a tiny bathroom in our trailer and every time I walked in I would find four or five women huddled in there having their hurried lunches out of sight of the refugees. They were extremely sensitive to the situation of the refugees and insisted on travelling around the camp on foot, like the residents have to, even though this meant some trips of half an hour to check on a pregnant woman or a new born baby. And half an hour back. The camp is so large.

The tireless staff of Save the Children Jordan's Mother's and Infants Nutrition team celebrating a birthdays in the privacy of the base camp trailer. What wonderful women they are.

Save the Children Jordan facilitated my visit, providing me with a place to teach and helpful staff. The group I was with were all young Jordanian women, most fresh out of college with degrees in nutrition and pharmacy. They were all women because they run the pregnant and breast feeding mothers program at the camp. I am still not sure why I was assigned to their protection but it was probably because they had a free space that week. They were wonderful and so young - children helping children. The rest of the staff I worked with were Syrians living in the camp. They are all doing incredible work.

Zaatri Refugee Camp is a rapidly growing city of uniform white tents administered by the United Nations and the country of Jordan. It houses 140,000 people and grows by one or two thousand every day. It is now the fourth largest city in the county.

It exists because the suffering in Syria is unspeakable. Government forces target civilians with bombs, shelling and execution. Children are abducted, tortured, maimed and executed as punishment to their families. Most medical staff have fled the country or been killed and hospitals are often secretive and desperate places. People on the Government side of the war are also dying of course but the camp in Jordan houses, seemingly exclusively, those who support the Free Syrian Army.

The FSA helps to transport people to the southern border where they cross under sniper fire and are met on the Jordanian side by the Jordanian Army and brought to the camp. Those who have the means travel on to other areas to stay with friends and relatives. Those who have no option end up in Zaatri - seven miles from the border of the country they long to return to.

There is enough food in the camp and conditions are better than I expected. Many people I spoke with wanted me to get the message to the world that the camp is not the disaster that the media portrays. The United Nations and all the associated agencies are doing an unimaginable job of providing water and carefully calculated calories for all the people who live in Zaatri. I saw long lines of people outside the food distribution centers which are enormous tents like airplane hangers surrounded, as are all the buildings, by fencing and razor wire. There are separate lines for the men and women. I saw many people taking their food
home in wheel barrows - lentils, oil and rice. I also saw bread being carried around in bags.  On the street that seems to have been designated as a shopping street I saw fresh vegetables, chicken and even ice cream - which Syria is famous for. So there is obviously electricity getting to some of these tiny corrugated tin sheds. And varied food for those who can afford it. Which is probably few. Many people have lost everything in the bombing carried out by government fighter jets. When I asked a staff member how many of the people at the camp had experienced the death of someone close to them she said simply, “Everyone. Every one of them”

Cooking in the camp is done in separate areas since the housing tents are small. Bathroom buildings are often quite far from the tents. Many families have dug their own latrines inside their tents and carved open running sewers into the streets. This is obviously not good and agencies are trying to change it. Apart from the obvious risk of disease it makes walking around difficult. The desire for privacy and safety though is understandable.

Work days for me started at 7:30 when I took the little mini bus from Amman for the hour and a half drive north to the border along with about ten Save the Children staff. Near the camp are dusty dry fields and large olive plantations. Increasing amounts of barbed wire fencing and military vehicles announce that Zaatri is near and then on the horizon appear thousands of small white tents. At the camp entrance the Darach special security forces are positioned in tanks and armoured vehicles with their grey and black uniforms and an impressive amount of body armour - flack jackets and shoulder protection etc. It was reassuring to see that the mounted machine guns were covered with their little dust jackets - obviously not intended for immediate use. 

One of the soldiers checked our IDs on the bus and waved us through the crowd of people pressing and looking anxious. Waiting to get in. Waiting to get out. No Syrians are allowed out of the camp. Drivers in Jordan are used to inching their way through crowds of vehicles and people with a hair width to spare. But for visiting western foreigners driving through this crush of people would be alarming. On my first day at the camp I shared a car with a couple of staff and it was followed by dozens of children who climbed onto the bumper as we drove. But this happens to me in other parts of Jordan too. 

I worked in a portable trailer surrounded by security fencing and razor wire in the middle of the ocean of tents. I did not see any of these “caravans” being used for housing but I know that agencies are trying to do this. Our trailer sat in its own security compound.  I spoke with the Syrian guard at the gate who told me that he was from Dera'a but had worked as the boss of a ceramics factory in Damascus. He fled to protect his wife and seven children but he looked sad and ashamed as he told me. Around our trailer he had planted some ceder trees and rosemary that were struggling in the desert ground. They were the only plants I saw in the camp’s miles of dusty gravel.  We talked about gardening. I showed him how big my rosemary plant was at home. He showed me how big his rosemary had been in Dera'a. His house is destroyed now. The next day I brought him some plant food that my friends Laurie and Trevor bought for me in Amman. He accepted the gift with gravitas, reading the entire label of the package in front of me to show that it meant a lot to him. A gracious and charming man.

Shoes outside the door of our trailer.

Each morning I unpacked my big old suitcase of art supplies and waited for the children to arrive. On the first day things got a little out of hand with a crush at the door and we called for help to sort out the arrivals. More than two hundred kids made drawings that day and I helped each of them, suggesting things to draw and showing them how to blend colors. I allowed them to draw whatever they liked so we got many Free Syrian flags. (These have red stars and are different from  the green stars of the government flag) The colours of the flag are limited so I encouraged the kids to draw more imaginative and colourful pictures on the backs of their flags. I was impressed with the artistic abilities of these kids who obviously had made art before. Many didn’t hesitate to draw things that they loved. Farms were popular with fruit trees and always a river. Butterflies figured large and flowers. There was usually a house but rarely people. I talked to each child and told her that her drawing was beautiful and that she was wonderful. I found something special about each drawing to comment on. 

Sometimes I would find a girl with a half finished drawing staring into space, unable to continue. I can't even imagine what was in her mind. After a while they all picked up their chalks again and carried on. There were many smiles. Laughter. And great pride in showing me their work. The room was so full of joy it was hard to remember that these were traumatized kids. When the drawings were finished we let each girl choose a colourful feather from our bags of craft supplies to take home. I will always remember looking out the window of the trailer to see small children walking away into the miles of dusty white tents carrying big bright drawings and colourful feathers. 

By four o’clock each day I was hungry and very tired. Driving home in the bus one day I commented on how amazing I thought the women were working such hard and long hours. They told me that they were going home for five hours rest before returning to do a midnight shift. That night they were helping to greet new arrivals who cross the border at night to avoid snipers. 2000 people arrived that night while I was sleeping safely in my bed in Amman. It was a typical night. I also learned that Save the Children staff often distribute supplies in the middle of the night, knocking on tents and waking the families to reduce the risk of distribution crushes.

Distribution is a major problem at the camp as the huge numbers of people can easily lead to crushes and dangerous situations. Most of the toys and supplies I took to donate were stored in the Save the Children caravan to be included in a carefully monitored activity at some future date. One can’t randomly pass out supplies. One of the children I made friends with liked to crochet so I took her a bag of wool that my hosts in Amman gave to me. We were immediately approached by several women asking for wool. We tried to share some out but this just attracted more attention and it was obvious how quickly random distribution of goods can become distressing. I dream of having a caravan at the camp stocked with art and craft supplies where people wouldn’t have to beg for a ball of wool or a pencil. 

The scarf and gloves crocheted by my young friend.

The supplies I used in Zaatri were paid for by my friends in Seattle and Canada. I put out a request on Facebook and so many wonderful friends and family responded that I was able to buy enough supplies to leave at the camp for future use. Utrecht Art Supplies and Artist and Craftsman Supply in Seattle donated wonderful things. I also bought toys and children’s books in Arabic which I was told will be used in the children’s counseling center.

One of the Syrian women I worked with every day was very good at recording the name of each child who entered the trailer. Noor was so sweet and patient with the crush at the door and made sure everyone got in. The third day of work was Mother’s day in Jordan and she told me that she had been a mother but her six children, including twin babies, and her husband were killed when their house was shelled. I started to cry and she went and got me a tissue. That day I encouraged the staff to make their own drawings but Noor shook her head and indicated that it was not something she could do. It was for other people. Later, after the other staff had finished, I saw her sitting alone in the corner quietly drawing. I left her in peace. When I returned she showed be a picture full of details and colour of a farm scene. A mother sits outside and plays with her baby under a tree. She wanted me to have the picture and I will treasure it always. 

Noor's drawing.

That day as we strolled back to base camp Noor saw I was shivering in the cold and put her arms around me as we walked. She told me that she brought her cat named Lou Lou from Syria and that he was “the color of the sun”. I didn’t see any other pets at the camp except for one dog. I understood why my new friend would have gone to the trouble of fleeing with her pet - the only living member of her immediate family - but I found it unusual and touching that she had done this. I asked if I could take her picture and she requested that I not put it on the computer. She said she was worried about her brother in Syria and crossed her wrists. 

The trailer looked colourful after we had finished.

I was not permitted to take pictures of the camp for my own safety and for the dignity of the residents. I was scrupulous about asking permission of the children I photographed but am still hesitant about putting them on the internet. I did not go to Zaatri to take but to give and I wonder if  I should have left my camera at home completely.

Arwa's drawings and some Free Syrian Flags

On the second day I gave fourteen year old Arwa a few sheets of paper and some markers to take home.  She came back the next day with a beautifully coloured origami box that she had made. Inside was a bracelet - a gift for me. On my final day she hugged me for a long time and cried and said “Please don’t leave. Please don’t leave.” I gave her my computer contact information and told her that when she is back in Syria and has a computer she can look me up but it was very hard to say goodbye.

On the last day I was asked to paint a mural on the outside of one of the caravans. It was sad to see the groups of children arriving hoping to be able to draw and being disappointed that they couldn’t because I was busy with the mural and the trailer was being used for a nutrition lecture. A father arrived looking hopeful with his small children holding his hands. It broke my heart to turn him away. He came back twice to check because I had been told that we might be drawing later in the day. The look on his face was of such sadness. All he wanted was for his children to make a drawing in the midst of such grief and desperation. I am crying as I write this.

I know that the Save the Children staff will carry on with the drawing program using the supplies that I left with them. I hope that father returns with his children. I hope all the children I met get to smile and feel for a few more minutes that the world can be a nurturing place. To play. To create. To escape. And most importantly, to imagine a world of fruit trees and rivers. That is what I wish for them. Some day it will be their reality once again.  

Comments or questions please email Jean Bradbury