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  • Prof. Helen Storey

Drawing Reality

There are 400 TIGERS in Zaatari Refugee Camp just now, a group of young people originally self - named as -‘These Inspiring Girls Enjoy Reading’ formed to explore identity, confidence and the fruits of education, as an alternative to early marriage - now with many boys amongst them too.

To be a TIGER, is to be an activist – living itself as activism - I first met these young children back in 2016, when we delivered one of our first co-created projects in camp – the LOVE COATS. Since then, we have worked with them together with Ellie Saab, the Lebanese Couture House, to explore how Syrian identity is lived away from home and if it were represented by ‘a new Syrian stitch’ what that might be.

Together with Rainbow Collective, acclaimed documentary film makers, who amplify the voice of youth around the planet, we asked the TIGERS what they most wanted to tell the world at this time – spontaneously, it was what the COVID pandemic has meant to them.

It’s been a huge privilege to work with the TIGERs of Zaatari to help them create their first animated film. We’ve spent 15 years teaching film production at every level from pre-school to PhD and the TIGER are absolutely one of the most talented and dedicated groups of young people we have had the pleasure to work with over the years. They are producing at work at a standard way beyond their years and we can’t wait to collaborate with them on the next stage of their journey.” Rainbow Collective

As a team, we were mindful that globally, children’s voices around COVID-19 have been heard less often and for those in Zaatari, we have missed out on witnessing and understanding their lived experience of this latest emergency and how their imaginative energies have been able to express themselves in these totally altered times.

At the start of the project, working within COVID safety measures it felt quite miraculous, that with the TIGERS split between two different centres in camp and with us in London, that off and onsite NGO staff, translators, data bundles, ipads, internet connections made available, paper and drawing materials in the hands of the children could all be coordinated and that Teams could bring us all together in one place.

I wondered how they would respond to our ‘avatar’ appearance on screen - meeting the UK animation team for the first time, knowing how up to now physical presence has always been so important to building trust and experiencing meaningful engagement.

On other harsher locked down Winter days, with sand storms raging, reduced access to electricity, poor internet, a cacophony of echoes from other children’s voices across camp, we watched and listened as the same children spoke out of the dark of their homes; using the light of their parent’s mobile phone screens to show us what they had most recently drawn.

“This experience taught me how to express my feelings and transform them into drawings that represent my reality”. Qasem D, partcipant

In many ways, the effects of the pandemic on the TIGER’s are universal, COVID-19 has stopped lives and shut schools the world over, but it has been the nature and dynamic of this project that has suggested a connected question – How does sustainable change happen?

We were able to work with a COVID safe number of 10 young people, at a time when the world values and strives for scale of impact and whole system change; working in this way is a reminder that sustainable change is often only possible when we are personally and deeply moved by something, when it makes it into our sleep even.

It is intimate connection that we have missed most during this time – It doesn’t start as a numbers game, it’s the individual moments of meaningful connection that last, that, and the ingenuity and hope that often arises in the cracks between nameable practices; whilst collectively, the best is being made from the worst.

“Happiness and joy is when I share something I have created with other people”. – Shaima M, partcipant

Zaatari remains a crucible for so many of our species biggest challenges. This project has unexpectedly shown me again what it means to be born in a camp, to grow up in a camp, shadowed still, by the nowadays complicated and unspoken question, ‘will it ever be safe to go home?’ - Syria.

Noticing what the children chose to draw and why, I can see how the devoted humans around them now; the NGO’s, camp officials, the TIGER coaches, the translators, are all a part of a wider interdependent family – each adding an unconscious part to the parental experience for children – the constant presence of significant other adults, that are directly linked to the quality of their everyday lives, holders of their futures and whom they witness their own parents dependent upon too.

It is easy to romanticise and over use the word ‘resilience’ in the context of these times and in Zaatari in particular, but it’s clear that these young Syrians have heightened levels of vulnerability, equally matched by a seemingly relentless fortitude – theirs is a psychological and physical resilience, with tragically won life skills, born out of the heartbreak and the consequences of war.

Though this project we have found some highly gifted TIGERS - Next, is to teach them how to animate technically for themselves, so that they can in turn train other children and make us redundant as soon as possible. The ambition is for a Zaatari Animation Club to come – another way for them to share their lives with the rest of the world and that perhaps might lead to future educational paths and eventual careers.

Even at this distance, it’s staying close to urgent world need through collaborative creative practice – Action, not words, that continues to feel right.

“Drawing is an expression of something, feelings, or thoughts in our minds, without words”. Aathar H, partcipant


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