The Resilient Refugee and the Power of Art



Most of the world’s refugees – 86 per cent — live in the developing world, compared to 70 per cent 10 years ago. Most of these countries have kept their doors open to people in search of safety, and have shown a generosity that is often well beyond their means. I appeal to all Member States and our partners in civil society to do their utmost to support the nations and communities that have welcomed the forcibly displaced into their midst.

– Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General[1]


child art June 20  marks this year’s World Refugee Day, an event officially observed by governments and their people all over the world to mark the struggles of millions of people that are “forced to flee from their homelands under threat of violence, persecution and conflict.”[2]

Recent data suggests that the number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons tops 50 million – the highest number since WWII. Over half of them are children. This year, we choose to observe the date by celebrating the resiliency of the refugee.

Providing food, water and shelter is a daunting, unending and seemingly insurmountable task for camp organizers. But even more daunting and perhaps less tangible is addressing the psycho-social element of refugee life – coping with the present, accepting the past, and preparing for the future. This is no small feat for an adult, and can be an even more terrifying set of emotions for children and youth not old enough to handle them.

The WHO estimates that over 50% of refugees (over half of them children) have mental health problems that are either caused by or exacerbated by their status as a refugee.[3] This is an issue that the international community recognizes and struggles address. Sometimes, lessons are best taught by the students themselves. For this year’s World Refugee Day – we take a look into youth efforts to use the arts as a tool for building resiliency.

The inclusion of child and youth-friendly spaces in the organization of IDP camps has skyrocketed, and has use of the arts in programming. It is used as an educational tool for teaching about camp safety, water conservation and hygiene. Education aside, art has been recognized for its ability to serve as a medium for coping with and developing resiliency to the hostile conditions that children youth and adults find themselves in. Let’s take a look at a few examples.



A Safe Space


palestine circusIt’s Thursday evening. You hear rumbling overhead. Dust in your mouth. A rotted out building with shredded material barely conceals the rhythmic thumping inside. Peek past the tattered window shade and you see a trampoline, dirty mattresses lining the floor below a trapeze, juggling paraphernalia and a lone unicycle.

This is the Palestinian Circus School, located in the Al Jalazon Refugee Camp; – more precisely it is situated in the Christian Village of Birzeit, in the West Bank. Here, over 220 children –importantly,  both male and female children – join together to create and perform skits, acrobatic displays and dances that simultaneous allow them to vent their frustrations, channel their emotions and tell their stories.

Founded in 2006, the circus provides a safe space for children to emote. They are given an opportunity for exercise, for free speech and expression, and a chance to be kids – a right taken from children in conflict areas far too soon. According to co-founder Jessika Devlieghere, “the need for any kind of recreational positive input is bigger than ever.”[4]

Children and youth in particular need this opportunity to work through their experiences in order to emotionally survive them. This is of particular importance for Hazar Azzeh, a 17 year old female, who uses dance and skits to highlight social issues like the harassment of women, or conservative social norms that limit women’s freedoms and opportunities. She hopes to be a role model for younger girls.


Conflict Transformation


AptArt-REFUGEE_07In Syria, a band performs nightly in Za’atari, the world’s second largest camp, which is now home to over a 100,000 residents. Some nights the air is filled with bombing, other nights it teems with socially conscious messages performed by the troupe, addressing taboo topics like child labour, forced marriage and dangers for women in the camp. More often than that though, residents sing traditional songs, perform traditional dances  to unite those that came from the same place and to bridge cultural gaps and stand in solidarity with their likewise displaced neighbors from other lands.

In a series on life in a refugee camp, Khaled Hasseini (author of the Kite Runner) notes that since opportunities for work and entertainment are scarce, groups like this play an important part in community life, allowing for conflict transformation and relationship building in an environment that can be otherwise eerily isolating.[5] To combat this people use art and tradition to form a common ground. Further, opening these expressions and performances to the public helps foster a sense of unity with the host community and a sense of solidarity across the world.


Highly Politicized

Art in itself has always been a highly politicized medium for social deviance and commentary – and this couldn’t be more evident in refugee and IDP camps. Psychologists and numerous organizations have pinpointed the need for child and youth friendly spaces in refugee camps for years, as a way to enhance the physical safety of children and youth and provide education but also as a means to protect them psycho-socially.

The hope is that with this support, children and youth may be better equipped to cope with their current surroundings and move forward after camp life. According to UNICEF, after going through their psycho-social support program, children that one could only produce scenes of horrifying death and darkness were beginning to produce work depicting peace and hopefulness.[6]

This speaks to the cathartic power of art, which transcends life in the camp and continues to bind survivors after they move on. Many immigrants and refugee diaspora communities around the world commonly connect with and share their experiences and their cultures art through painting, sculpture, dance, food and word to preserve the history and share their stories.

In Ottawa, the public will have an opportunity to listen to a variety of speakers share their stories of their lives as refugees and their experience arriving in Canada.  If you are in the GTA this week, head down to Toronto City Hall to observe or participate in the annual World Refugee Day march to Dundas Square, followed by activities and events, or look for the many local groups that also hold their own festivities.

Click here for frequently updated photos of child circus stars in Palestine. To Follow Khaled Hosseini’s expose on life in refugee camps, click here and here.

Click here for a collection of art by children in refugee camps










Sarah Anstett

Sarah Anstett

Sarah is a writer, researcher, and development practitioner currently based in Toronto, Canada.

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