Posted by Jane Best and Angie Alexander
Angie, RIJ Funding Director, joined us for our final stop on this trip. We were in Gaziantep in south-eastern Turkey to visit the SMART art youth project on 18 March. The Syrian border is just one hour from Gaziantep and it is another 30 minutes to Aleppo so many Syrians have fled to the area around the town.
The influx of Syrian refugees has increased the population of Gaziantep from 1.9 million to 2.3 million according to official figures. However, it is likely that this is a conservative estimate since there are many refugees who are not registered. Refugees can register if they show evidence of a place of abode. This must exclude a lot of Syrians to start with.
We met with the Mercy Corps (MC) team at the Malumat Centre in Gaziantep and learnt
much more about the situation. The centre serves as a community hub to disseminate essential information, run outreach programmes, build capacity and address the problems of isolation and loneliness felt by young people through social development and community integration work.
The RIJ-funded SMART art project was a pilot scheme implemented last summer. It is an innovative project aimed to bring Syrian and Turkish youth together, breaking down barriers and giving youth a means of expression. The project took off better than expected and has been a huge success, with 103 participants feeling more connected to the community and making new friends as well. Youth participated in art workshops and reproduced their art on murals that adorn learning centres and orphanages around the area.
The energetic project team took us off to visit several orphanages and learning centres to see the murals and meet some of the participants. We heard from both Turkish and Syrian young people we met told us how much they had benefited from the project and we learnt that MC hope to continue the project, bringing some of the participants from the first programme in as facilitators the second time round. This is a great continuation of the project since it shows that youth have been empowered through the activity.
Two of the centres we visited accommodate widows and their children. The women are given training and advice in preparation for moving out into the community and living independently, while their children can attend classes and activities covering topics like life skills and language training, as well as general educational courses. Some children have been unable to attend school since leaving Syria (approx. 80% of Syrian youth are not in school in Gaziantep). At one centre, children as young as 10 were learning all about self-confidence and were enthusiastically practising how to introduce themselves.
The murals follow a variety of themes including ‘Our Community’, ‘Aspiration’,
‘Education’, ‘Peace’, ‘Hygiene’ and ‘Rainbow’ which signifies ‘Hope shining through’.
They are beautiful and certainly bring ‘sunshine’ to the centres.
Some of the comments written by the youth on the murals include:
“Don’t give up”
“We can do everything”
“Life is beautiful” “Peace is born inside our hearts”
and the one that impressed me the most: “Tolerance is the adjective that makes peace possible”
One of the participants, Sali, 16, a Syrian refugee described the meaning of ‘Our Community’ mural (pictured) as representing “friendship and brothership”. “When we drew it, every colour represents Syria” and “Syria is hugging friends, houses, tents (that represent us as refugees) and there is a dark side and a good side. Our community also has the ups and downs”.
We finished the day visiting a Turkish NGO called Utopia. MC has assisted this project with classes for a further 300 children, through an underspend in the project RIJ funded. Children under the age of 10 years attend classes that teach cookery, origami, felt-work, mask-making, drama and body percussion. They were making cookies when we visited and the thing that impressed us most was how well behaved the children were and how much fun they were having learning a new skill, while spending time with other children from the local community, as well as Syrian and Afghan refugees.
The trip left me feeling very inspired by the children and young people that we met, who are all striving for a better and more peaceful existence, whether that be in Turkey or one day back home in Syria. One of the quotes written on the mural by the young people has stayed with me, which said “Let peace be in the world just one day” – it is certainly worth hoping for.