Akre, Iraq – In a dimly lit room with high ceilings and no furniture, the brightly coloured paints, spattered onto Soleen Smael’s T-shirt and jeans, look out of place. She is describing the murals that she and other children have painted onto the walls of the refugee camp they live in since they fled Syria with their families two years ago.
“Some of the pictures are about children who are orphans, some are about [ISIL] in Syria,” says 14-year-old Soleen, adding, “For any picture we paint, there is meaning behind it. And we want people to come and ask us about the meaning of our pictures and why we’ve painted them.”
The room that Soleen lives in with her family used to be a prison cell that, under former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, was part of a complex that held political dissidents. Soleen fled ISIL fighters’ advances with her family and 14,000 other Syrians from Qamishli in northern Syria, to Akre in Iraqi Kurdistan.
They have found a temporary home in the town’s former prison, nestled beneath the mountains between Erbil and Dohuk. Iraqi Kurdistan is home to more than 2 million displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees, according to UNHCR.
Every Friday, Soleen and at least a dozen other children who live in the old prison, now known as Akre refugee camp, gather in the midday sun to paint bright murals onto the drab walls of the former prison where more than 240 Syrian families share the cells.
Lucy Tyndall, from New Zealand, is the programme manager of Castle Art, a project run by the Erbil-based Rise Foundation, an NGO that began supporting the children’s artwork at the camp in April 2014.
Tyndall says the project’s goals are twofold: To improve the atmosphere of the camp and support the children’s artistic expression. “At our very first session, the students brought drawings they had already done. Two-thirds of their pictures were of death and destruction, people being shot, just horrendous scenes,” recounts Tyndall.
“But after meetings with the community, we decided to focus on positive imagery. So when Nadrine, one of the children involved in the project, shows us a sketch of a bird in a cage that she wants to paint as a mural, for instance, I’ll suggest painting the door of the cage open and the bird flying out.”
Volunteer Valeria Bembry says Castle Art children are encouraged to bring original designs each week to paint on the camp’s walls. “They are sort of given homework, so they produce some drawing and then when we show up on Friday, they show the drawings to us, then we pick a wall, find the paint, and say ‘get to it’.”
In the year that the children have been painting their designs, swaths of the camp’s walls have been covered. “I wanted to see how big we could go, how big the kids could express their ideas. And when you say to one of the kids, ‘You know this is actually your sketch,’ taking up an entire wall, they’re really taken aback,” Tyndall says.
Castle Art does not identify as an art therapy project, but the designs on the camp walls are a testament to the children’s experiences as refugees and their shared memories of Syria. Even before the ancient Syrian city Palmyra fell to ISIL in May, the project had begun designing a huge rendering of the city, which would showcase the city’s tall columns and the surrounding scenery as the children remembered it.
The project sets out to improve the children’s technique. In the case of the Palmyra mural, Tyndall says the children’s design will encourage them to think of depth and perspective, “creating distance in a painting, shading and light”.
Soleen, who began painting before she fled Syria says Castle Art has introduced her to new artistic ideas too. “In Syria I was already learning how to draw, but what we learned there was different. In Syria, we drew nature and trees, but here what we draw is different, we are learning new things.”
Some of the most recent murals to appear on the camp’s walls, staircases and corridors show the influence of street artists Banksy, Thierry Noir, and Stick, since Castle Art Street began leading workshops in street art. “Street art sets out to ridicule structures of oppression,” says Tyndall, “and the children are incorporating these techniques to transform the walls of Saddam-era oppression into something more positive.
“What’s happening here is reminiscent of what happened with the Berlin wall,” says Tyndall. “In East Germany there was a population that wanted to get to the other side of the wall, and that’s exactly what Akre is at the same time. You have a whole group of people here who want a better life and who want to leave, to go home.”
Banky’s artwork on the separation barrier near Bethlehem between Israel and the West Bank has also acted as a template to inspire the children’s artistic expression in Akre and give them hope for life beyond the walls of the former prison.
Castle Art volunteers asked the children to paint their dreams and hopes for the future in the cracks in the former prison walls. One child painted a map of Syria.
Adults in the camp say they are relieved their children are engaged in any long-term project that gives them something to look forward to. “When they paint pictures, they forget their problems. It’s important that the project has encouraged the children in the camp to paint together,” one parent told Al Jazeera. “It keeps them busy and so it helps them to forget about the situation here, about what happened to them before.”
Soleen says the project has been important for solidifying community within the camp and helping her find friends. “In the beginning, I didn’t know anyone from the project. But we’ve grown into a family. We take care of each other. Because we paint together, we respect each other.” She hopes the children from the camp will one day be able to exhibit their artwork for visitors. “We want to make a big show and to make more work for this show.”
“Hopefully, one day,” says Bembry, “when everyone is in their own homes, or somewhere else, this facility will remain as a testament to the dark history of the Saddam era, and this change of what these kids did over time. I can see this becoming a museum of sorts, with people coming to learn about who lived here and how they managed to transform this space.”
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