This Extraordinary Artwork Was Made In The World’s Second Largest Refugee Camp. You Couldn’t See It Until Now.


Mahmoud al Hariri’s art has changed dramatically in the last few years. But so has his life. He doesn’t see the world in the same way he did before conflict forced him from his home in southeastern Syria to a refugee camp in neighboring Jordan.

“[In Syria], I drew all different types of things, but here…I reflect the reality of being here. Now, I look at things through my true feelings, so art has become darkness,” al Hariri told ThinkProgress in a Skype interview from Za’atari, the world’s second largest refugee camp where he lives along with some 85,000 other Syrian refugees.

Syrian artist Mahmoud al Hariri works on a sculpture in Za'atatri, a refugee camp in Jordan.

Syrian artist Mahmoud al Hariri works on a sculpture in Za’atatri, a refugee camp in Jordan.

CREDIT: International Relief and Development

The 25-year-old was an art teacher before an uprising between separatists and forces loyal to Bashar al Assad, the authoritarian head of Syria, turned into a bloody, civil war that’s now entering into its fourth year. As the conflict worsened, the subject of al Hariri’s art changed from the natural beauty and historical sites of his country to the horrors they had become.

“Here in Za’atari now, I draw destruction,” al Hariri said through a translator. “Instead of seeing nature and flowers that come in all different colors and all different styles, instead I see the white and black of destroyed buildings, the smoke that rises after war and destruction. There aren’t flowers left in Syria that we would look at and appreciate.”

Al Hariri is part of a collective of seven artists who meet on a weekly basis through support from the Arlington, VA-based, International Relief and Development (IRD). The artists – all men – came together in October of 2014 to form a collaborative space to create and share their drawings, paintings, and sculptures. Their work, featured here, has never before been shown outside of Jordan.

Painting by Syrian artist Iyad Sabagh.

Painting by Syrian artist Iyad Sabagh.

CREDIT: Photo by Beenish Ahmed, Edited by Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

The group shares more than just a love of art. They have all faced a similar plight, fleeing the province of Deraa where a siege by government forces sparked conflict, and where, more recently, the Islamist militant group ISIS executed hundreds of civilians.

These atrocities are reflected in the work made by al Hariri and his fellow artists. Many of the works show bullet-riddled cities and dead bodies. Even a brightly colored painting of an angel is caste in a melancholy light. Although some works show more pleasant scenes — singers and horses — the shadow of death hangs over many of them. According to one artist, depicting even the best of times has come to be an exercise in grief.

“It’s very similar to how you remember something. If you have something you love and it’s with you, you look at it with happiness, not with sadness. Like a person you love, when they’re with you, maybe you draw them and they’re smiling and they’re laughing,” But if you lose that person, Ahmad al Hariri, 30, no relation to Mahmoud, said, “When you think about them or you draw them, you look at them with sadness and that is how you draw them [too].” 

That sense of sadness is palpable in the artists’ drawings and paintings.

It’s not just their work which has changed. All of the members of the Za’atari artist collective were artists before they fled their homes in Syria, either professionally or as a hobby. But like nearly every other facet of their lives in an overcrowded refugee camp, creating art has become a struggle for them.

Mixed media work by Syrian artist Iyad Sabagh.

Mixed media work by Syrian artist Iyad Sabagh.

CREDIT: Photo by Beenish Ahmed, Edited by Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

“It’s not just color and it’s not just [our] subjects [which have changed], Iyad Sabagh, one of the founders of the group said. “But actually, the living conditions and the place that we are greatly effects our work and our art.”

Although Za’atari has become a sort of city onto itself with small shops, schools, and even gentrification, life there isn’t easy for most of its residents.

“You can imagine the different priorities that emerge when you’re far from home and living in Za’atari,” Sabagh said. “If you can imagine, for the last three months, my home in the camp has been without electricity…Your priorities are about when will the water come, how will you provide for your family, [and] what are the services that you can reach? And this takes time, it takes energy, but it also takes a psychological toll. There’s psychological stress that comes from leaving [our homes], [and] there’s the psychological pressures of being here in the camp.”

For Sabagh, a 27-year-old who worked both as an art teacher and in advertising back home in Syria, art has fallen low on his list of priorities. A painting he started four months ago, he said, still remains unfinished – a far slower time frame than was typical for him back in Syria.

The hardships of life in Za’atari, he said, effect “both how you can find time for your work, but also how you engage with it.”

He still sees creating art as a way to relax – he just doesn’t get as much time or peace of mind to do that as he did when things were peaceful back home in Syria.

It’s also harder to find materials needed to create art.

Some of the artists carried packets of oil paints or a pad of paper into Jordan with them, Julianne Whittaker who coordinates sports and recreational activities for Za’atari residents, said in an email.

Mixed media work by Syrian artist Mohammed Amari.

Mixed media work by Syrian artist Mohammed Amari.

CREDIT: Photo by Beenish Ahmed, Edited by Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

While her organization, International Relief and Development (IRD), provides some supplies to the artists through funding by donor agencies for specific art projects, it’s still a challenge for the artists to find materials for their own personal work, forcing them to be resourceful. One drawing she sent to IRD was scrawled on the back of a United Nations’ flier calling on residents of the camp to get polio vaccines.

“Artists will purchase what they can from the camp’s informal market, if financially able,” she said, “Although the market does not have specialized materials, only pens, pencils, [and] paper really.”

Whittaker, who has worked with the group since it came together in Oct. 2014, added, “As the artists came together as a group, they began thinking about the power of their numbers – not just to individually sell paintings, but to create projects that create waves in the community on a larger scale.”

That’s how the group’s current project called “Syrian History and Civilization” came to be. It’s a joint effort to depict cultural and historical sites in the country they left behind – many of which have now been damaged or completely destroyed.

Art explanation

CREDIT: International Relief and Development

In fact, all but one of the country’s six World Heritage Sites as recognized by the United Nations Educational and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have been “significantly” damaged in the ongoing conflict. Heavy fighting has reduced much of the city of Aleppo, for instance, to rubble. Although it dates back to 2000 B.C., the ravages of time have done little damage compared to the ravages of war.

That’s why the project is so important to the artists.

It’s an introduction to Syria – and a way to reveal its creative force before so much destruction began, is project, Ahmad al Hariri told ThinkProgress.

Pen and ink drawing by Syrian artist  Mohammed Awad on the back of a flier issued by the United Nations.

Pen and ink drawing by Syrian artist Mohammed Awad on the back of a flier issued by the United Nations.

CREDIT: Photo by Beenish Ahmed, Editing by Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

“More and more of Syria’s historical and culturally significant sites, [and its] archeological sites, are in danger now. This project becomes a means of preserving history,” he said. “So with our project we’re keeping these things safe so that everyone can remember and everyone can still see Syria and the different important sites it has, because it needs us to protect them now, before they are destroyed and maybe forgotten.”

 “Our art has purpose now,” he said, adding that he sees his artwork as a form of activism. “For us, our country is destroyed and we see sad things happen every day, but more than that, the message that we’re trying to get across is that we’re losing our identity. As these famous historical and cultural places are lost, our country and us, ourselves, as people, lose our identity.”

Painting by Syrian artist Mohammed Amari.

Painting by Syrian artist Mohammed Amari.

CREDIT: Photo by Beenish Ahmed, Edited by Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

For this project, the group plans to depict seven sites through their artwork. Once the works have been completed, the collective will create a “moving gallery” to show them throughout the five square miles of the sprawling camp. Doing so will not only help to remind inhabitants of the grandeur of the country they left behind, but also help to inform children who fled at young ages or who have been born in the camp of Syria’s history and architecture.

“In the context of the camp, this is an important goal,” Whittaker, of IRD, wrote in an email. “Syrians are a proud people. You cannot sit in the camp for more than a minute before a Syrian explains to you the beauty of his home, the entrepreneurship of his people, the deepness of his history. War has taken away a piece of Syrians’ identity, making them victims and pushing them from their homeland. This artwork reminds them of the country they are proud of and called home.”

But it’s not just this project that runs counter to narratives of war and chaos in Syria. Just by keeping up with their art, Whittaker said, the artists send a message to the world. “It’s important for the international community to be reminded that Za’atari Camp is full of talented people – educated, cultured, and passionate – and life has not stopped for them despite their hardships. They continue despite all odds to pursue their passion and use their talents to get out a message in support of their people and the home they love.”

Painting by Syrian artist  Mohammed Amari.

Painting by Syrian artist Mohammed Amari.

CREDIT: Photo by Beenish Ahmed, Edited by Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

That’s part of why the hopes to show these works internationally. Some of the drawings and paintings they made before taking up this project are now at the IRD headquarters in Arlington where I saw and photographed them. They will soon be shown in an area gallery.

“All we have in Syria — these places, these memories — all could be lost,” said Khedawoe al Nablusi. The 60-something-year-old served as a carpenter by trade but also worked to foster knowledge of Syria’s rich artistic and architectural even before he was forced to flee. That’s something he continues to do – but with renewed passion.

“I owe my art to my country,” he said. “It’s the place that let me to become an artist, and inspired me. Because of this, I must always return to my country. I must use my talent to serve my country.”

Pen and ink drawing by Syrian artist Mohammed Amari.

Pen and ink drawing by Syrian artist Mohammed Amari.

CREDIT: Photo by Beenish Ahmed, Edited by Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

“For me, I see that the artist is the conscience of a society,” he said.

He now uses his work not only to foster pride among fellow Syrians, but also to call for an end to the conflict in Syria.

Recently, he made a model of a gun and filled it with candy. “My message was to return to happy things, to sweet things. And this was a message for all sides,” al Nablusi said. “We do feel hope for the future, and as we deliver our message, [even if it’s] of sadness. We still look and feel that we will return, that our country will come back, and we will have our homes back again. We will go back.”