Art Therapy Camp: Community Engagement for Residents of the World’s Second Largest Refugee Camp

The United Nations Refugee Agency (the UNHCR) reports that over 4 million people have fled Syria since the explosive conflict began in 2011, while 8 million more are displaced (UNHCR). The disturbing reality of the conflict can be seen in the huge number of refugees and the international community’s inability to address it thus far. While much recent talk has surrounded that particular failure on the part of potential host countries, Jordan continues to accept large numbers of Syrian refugees into its camps. As of late August, close to 630, 000 Syrians have settled in between Jordan’s tiny borders.

Since opening in 2012, the Za’atari Camp has swelled with over 500, 000 refugees having passed through—making it the largest refugee camp in the Middle East and the second largest in the world. Established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Jordanian government as a temporary settlement to deal with the Syrian crisis, the camp now holds an estimated 81, 000 persons (UNHCR). A large number of these residents include children and young adults, many of whom have been orphaned or separated from their families through the ongoing conflict. Several human rights groups continue to report dismal conditions and have called on the international community to help provide alternative living conditions for these vulnerable casualties of war (Amnesty International).

As of July 2015, the UNHCR reports that a mere 15,500 of an estimated 28,000 school-age children are currently enrolled in school, while 13% of children in Za’atari are engaged in child labour (UNHCR). Set in the harsh Jordanian desert and with few constructive activities for children and young adults to engage in, one can only begin to imagine how living conditions might truly be. This bleak reality, paired with the lingering traumas of a nearby war in a place once known as home, will surely have a devastating effect on these young people. However, one artist has teamed up with several organizations, educators, and fellow artists to

“enrich the human experience and (provide) opportunities for refugee voices to reach out to the world in a positive way to tell their own stories”

Simply dubbed “the Za’atari Project”, muralist/street artist and educator, Joel Bergner (aka Joel Artista), first began the initiative on a trip to Jordan in 2013. After partnering with organizations aptART (Awareness & Prevention Through Art) and ACTED (Fr. Agence d’Aide à la Coopération Technique Et au Développement or Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development), the group received funding from UNICEF. Following on from this, Bergner travelled to Za’atari earlier this year to promote the project in earnest.

The project features workshops to help educate and achieve wellness through the arts. These cover a range of topics, from water sanitation and conservation to a variety of artistic methods. By creating beautiful group murals, making kites, and working together on other creative projects, participants are encouraged to draw on past memories, explore conflict resolution, and build dreams for their futures. The artist reports a high rate of positive reactions to the “paint-a-wheelbarrow” project. Furthermore, the activities also help foster relationships between the young ones and positive role models right in their own communities. With the emotional and physical scars of conflict, and the morbid reality that it still rages on, the Za’atari Project is a welcomed resource for the residents of this camp.

More information can be viewed on the site, along with photos of the stunning, colourful creations made by the young residents of Za’atari: