The artists keeping Syria alive

As war demolishes Syria’s cultural landmarks, exiled artists in Za’atari refugee camp are recreating them in miniature

Mahmoud Hariri was carefully putting the finishing touches to a model of Palmyra he had spent months creating when he learned the ancient Syrian city had fallen to ISIS fighters. Hariri, 25, who was an art teacher and painter in Syria before fleeing to Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan in 2013, watched in horror over subsequent months as Palmyra’s ancient temples and monuments were destroyed.

“This site represents our history and culture, not just for Syrians but all of humanity,” he told the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. “If it is destroyed it can never be rebuilt.”

Syria’s cultural heritage is just one of the casualties of the country’s bloody five-year conflict. But in Jordan’s largest refugee camp, a group of artists – all from the southwest city of Dara’a – are working to help preserve the homeland they have left behind. Using materials such as polystyrene, kebab skewers, clay and local stone, the group named ‘Art from Zaatari’ are painstakingly recreating Syria’s most famous landmarks in an effort to preserve their cultural history.

“This is a way for them not to forget,” said Hariri. “As artists, we have an important role to play.”

Among the landmarks that the artists have recreated is a model of Palmyra, made of clay and kebab skewers; the Deir ez-Zor suspension bridge, which was destroyed by shelling in 2013; and a replica of the war-scarred Citadel of Aleppo, a military fortress on the frontlines of the conflict. The group work from photos and their memories.

“There are lots of kids living here who have never seen Syria or who have no memory of it. They know more about Jordan”The models have been displayed both at a community centre within the refugee camp, and at an exhibition in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

Ahmad Hariri, who instigated the project, hopes the miniatures will introduce thousands of young refugees – many of whom have little or no memory of their homeland – to some of Syria’s greatest cultural treasures. 

“There are lots of kids living here who have never seen Syria or who have no memory of it. They know more about Jordan than about their own country,” he said.

The project has also given the artists a sense of purpose, he added. “By doing this work, they feel like they are at least doing something to preserve their culture.”

The war in Syria has left more than 250,000 dead and sparked the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War Two. Some 4.3 million Syrians have fled the country, while 6.6 million more remain displaced within Syria.

[Click here for the full photo gallery]

Photo credit: Christopher Herwig/UNHCR