Streetlights lining Duar Paris, a city square in the center of Amman, Jordan, illuminated mixed martial arts performances, street artists painting murals, and a man on stilts strolling down the sidewalk.
Kazdara, Amman’s first annual art walk, drew in thousands of performers, artists, and spectators this month In a nation known as a haven of stability within a volatile region, Jordan has also recently gained a reputation as a haven for artists, developing a community and spaces for people to display their creativity. But unlike the robust art scenes of many countries, Jordan’s is different. With significant populations of refugees from Palestine, Iraq, and Syria, the creativity of refugees colors and defines the artistic community in Jordan. Art offers them not only freedom of expression but freedom from fear and a method to confront the trauma they have faced in their lives.
Refugee artists from all over the Middle East have come to Jordan to contribute both fine and urban art forms, especially with the recent exodus of artists from Syria. Shermine Sawalha, an organizer of Kazdara, described the influence of fine arts from Syria as a result of the Syrian civil war. Now, 80 to 90 percent of professionally trained Syrian artists have left Jordan and found work in Europe, according to Sawalha. Nonetheless, the Syrian artists who have settled permanently in Jordan have had a visible impact.
One artist in particular is Bu Kulthoum, an Amman MC and producer whose hip-hop work has gained popularity among Jordanian youth. In the passionate lyrics of “Oum Wselna,” Kulthoum raps of Damascus—the city that captured his heart, the city that mothered him, the city that he mourns. Kulthoum’s depictions of displacement and fear of persecution in his homeland ring true for many in Amman.
For many Jordanians and Jordanian artists, the recent influx of Syrian refugees is simply another phase of the continuous cycle of refugees entering the country. Approximately 629,000 Syrian refugees currently reside in Jordan. 81,500 of these refugees live in the Za’atari refugee camp, making it the fourth largest city in the country. Refugees are nothing new to Jordan—the country has been a host to Palestinians since the 1940s, a group that currently makes up 18 percent of Jordan’s population. Recent wars in Iraq have also contributed to large numbers of Iraqis seeking refuge in Jordan. According to a United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNCHR) report, approximately 30,000 Iraqi refugees are registered in Jordan. As Sawalha said, “this country is based on refugees.”
All of these refugees share one defining characteristic—fear. The UNHCR’s definition of a refugee requires that a refugee has a “well-founded fear of persecution” in the place from which they are fleeing. On both subjective and objective levels, this fear is a central theme of the art that refugees are creating in Jordan. Art can serve as a conduit for therapeutic healing from traumatic experiences, as well as a medium through which refugees are able to communicate their fears to the world.
Kuzey Atari, a coordinator at the Collateral Repair Project in Amman, said, “The arts are an easy way for them to express what they are really feeling. Sometimes it’s easier for them to express their feelings through arts more than to talk about it.” In his experiences working with Syrian refugees, Atari found that drawing and art lessons provided the medium necessary for many refugees to begin healing from their past experiences, which are often considered shameful and taboo to talk about.
NGOs and international organizations have supported the development of art projects that address the needs of refugees in Jordan. Awareness and Prevention through Art (aptART), an international NGO that Sawalha partners with, works on community engagement projects in the Za’atari refugee camp to create wall murals. Typically, coordinators spend five days in the community creating a concept behind the mural and giving workshops for refugees, and all community members collaborate in painting the mural’s background.
Last month, the Goethe Institute hosted the Forum on Culture and Humanitarian in Amman. Members of International Relief Development—a nonprofit that creates relief programs—spoke about their community-geared initiatives in the Middle East, which focus on individual and community identity preservation for refugees. IRD provides training and funding to empower refugees to create their own community project ideas. These projects work to reclaim refugees’ threatened culture through a safe means of expression.
IRD is not alone in their vision. Mercy Corps, an international NGO that helps those affected by crises, has also been involved in projects that help refugees engage with their new communities. Both IRD and Mercy Corps spearheaded projects in refugee camps and areas with high refugee populations in Jordan, focusing on community representation and building connections between camps and outside communities.
Although these projects and organizations provide a creative outlet for refugees within their reach, the situation for the city’s numerous refugees remains bleak. “[Refugees] feel marginalized, generally speaking, even by humanitarian assistance by international organizations,” said Domenique Sherab, Project Officer of the Refugee and Migration Unit at ARDD. With international support in decline, the majority of refugees in Jordan live in urban areas and struggle to survive, as they are not legally permitted to work in Amman. Art offers one method of coping with this reality for refugees who are fortunate enough to have access to resources and materials, but it is far from the widespread policy changes that are needed to fully address the needs of refugees.
From his experience working with refugees in Za’atari and Amman, Atari said, “There is one goal that they all have in common—freedom. [Through] the arts,he said, they can begin to find it.”