Thursday, May 21, 2015

Burma’s Boatpeople ‘Faced Choice Of Annihilation Or Risking Their Lives At Sea’...

They were carried or staggered ashore, some paralysed by malnutrition, others little more than walking skeletons, burnt and dazed from weeks at sea on boats the UN has called “floating coffins”.
Manu Abudul Salam, 19, had watched her brother die when desperate fighting broke out after the captain of their wooden boat fled on a speedboat, leaving more than 800 passengers adrift with dwindling food and water. “If I had known the boat journey would be so horrendous, I would rather have just died in Myanmar [Burma],” she told journalists shortly after being towed ashore by Indonesian fishermen, one of a few hundred allowed to land.
Salam, a Rohingya from northern Burma, was not exaggerating in her depiction of that grim choice, judging by a report from researchers at Queen Mary, University of London, which warns that her people are facing state-sponsored genocide.
“The Rohingya are faced with two options: stay and face annihilation, or flee,” said Professor Penny Green, part of a group that recently completed several months’ research in the Rohingya’s home state of Rakhine. “If we understand genocide to be a process, that is what this is. Those who remain suffer destitution, malnutrition and starvation; severe physical and mental illness; restrictions on movement, education, marriage, childbirth, livelihood, land ownership; and the ever-present threat of violence and corruption.”
Since 1982 the group has been refused citizenship by the Burmese government, which denies their existence. Officials will not attend events, at home or internationally, where the word Rohingya is used, and last week threatened to boycott a summit on the escalating migrant crisis which had been called by Thailand.
“If they use the term Rohingya, we won’t take part in it, since we don’t recognise this term. The Myanmar government has been protesting against the use of it all along,” Zaw Htay, an official from the president’s office, told Reuters on Saturday. Instead it insists that a group with its own language and a history in Burma that goes back many generations must be called Bengalis, and describes them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. That alienation has led to a vast chain of “refugee” camps which Green says are more like prisons, home to more than 100,000 Rohingya who require permission to leave them.
In the regional capital of Sittwe, once a thriving mixed city with dozens of mosques, a few thousand Rohingya still live in a ghetto with seven heavily guarded entrances. The number of mosques still standing is in single figures a nd they are deserted, occupied by government forces. A trickle of food aid into the camps keeps people alive but hungry on a meagre diet of rice and lentils, while in the city’s markets there are bags of food aid apparently siphoned off by officials with little care for the camps’ inhabitants. “They live the barest of existences,” Green says. “People were begging us for food. You walk around and see blank eyes.”
The government also tolerates Islamophobia and screeds of hatred in the media, Green said, fostering an ugly atmosphere that easily flares into violence. More than 200 Rohingya were killed in attacks in 2012 for which no one has been tried or even arrested. “We asked why there were no prosecutions or investigations, and the prosecutor said it was because it happened at night, so no one could see what happened.”
It is this living death that the Rohingya have been trying to flee for years, some across the border into Bangladesh, but thousands by sea, even though they know the smuggling trade is vicious and predatory and the journey could cost their lives.
The pace of departures has picked up, with up to 25,000 setting off from the Bay of Bengal between January and March, double the levels in 2013 and 2014, a UN report on “irregular maritime movements” in the region found. More than 300 migrants died of starvation, dehydration and beatings by boat crews, survivors told the UN. It is possible that others died unrecorded deaths as they set off in ships no more seaworthy or less crowded than those that frequently founder in the Mediterranean.
“A few interviewees also told of entire boats sinking, but there was no way to verify such reports or if, and how many, lives were lost,” the UN said in a report on the sea traffic.
Many of the women endure rape or other sexual violence on the boats or while waiting to travel, and many others are forced into marriage with men who pay for their journey. Mothers travelling with children are also particularly vulnerable to starvation, as young travellers are given no rations so women often go hungry to ensure that their sons and daughters can eat. This desperate exodus has been going on for years, largely unnoticed until regional governments that had been taking in the migrants started turning away men, women and children who had spent weeks at sea.
There are perhaps as many as 8,000 people now adrift in a hellish maritime limbo, refused permission to land by the Indonesian, Malaysian and Thai governments after being handed basic provisions of food and water, unlikely to last out their uncharted journeys.
“The situation is very grave,” Joe Lowry, a spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration in Bangkok, told Reuters. “They have no food, no water and are drinking their own urine. This is a game of maritime ping-pong with human life. We expect governments in the region to find a solution rapidly ... or we will be finding boatloads of desiccated corpses floating around in the Andaman Sea in coming days.”
Earlier in the week about 2,000 people were allowed to land; it was not clear how officials were deciding who should receive assistance and who were sent on their way. Turning the boats away was “incomprehensible and inhumane”, the UN’s top human rights official warned, as other UN organisations begged the governments to take them in and promised to help with food and transport costs. “In the name of humanity, let these migrants land,” said William Lacy Swing, director general of the International Organisation for Migration, which has already offered $1m in funding.
Pushing the desperate migrants back out to sea may also be illegal, as it violates obligations enshrined in global maritime law, according to the International Chamber of Shipping. “It’s a well-honoured maritime tradition for ships to rescue anyone in distress at sea, but coastal states also have an obligation to come to the rescue, and we expect them to honour this, including taking migrants ashore,” said ICS spokesman Simon Bennett.
The countries turning migrants away are apparently worried about their capacity to absorb a fast-growing number of poor, uneducated arrivals. But critics say they share responsibility for the current crisis by shying away from dealing with the root cause of the migration – policies in Burma that rights groups say amount to state-sponsored ethnic cleansing.
“Regional countries are reaping what they have sown for their policy of denial for years, and even with boatloads of desperate people in their waters they’re refusing to act,” said David Mathieson, senior researcher on Burma for Human Rights Watch.
“They are tantamount to co-conspirators in the repression of the Rohingya for years, because of their weak response to the export of Burma’s discriminatory policy to a stateless minority that has evinced more hatred than mercy throughout Asia.”
In its first official response to the crisis, the Burmese government denied any of the people stranded at sea were its citizens. “We cannot say the migrants are from Myanmar unless we can identify them,” a government spokesman, Ye Htut, told the Associated Press. “Most victims of human trafficking claim they are from Myanmar; it is very easy and convenient for them.”

Monday, May 4, 2015

Kathmandu's Kung Fu Nuns Have Refused To Be Evacuated - They're Staying Back To Help Victims...

300 women have refused to be flown by plane and chopper out of an earthquake ravaged Nepal. Clearly, they aren't ordinary women - they are nuns of the Ladakh-based Drupka order.
nuns kung fu
Or, as the world calls them, 'Kung-Fu Nuns'. These women have grown up learning kung fu and meditation their entire life from a Kathmandu nunnery, and now they're planning to stay back and use their strength to help earthquake victims here.
nepal kungfu nun
In fact, their leader, the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa  expected them to be shaken, like the rest of Nepal. He told the Daily Mail: “I was expecting the nuns over there to be under trauma. Many people were saying that they should be evacuated but they decided to stay back and help others." 
kung fu nuns
"It’s raining continuously, earthquakes are repeatedly happening, the walls are falling and none of them can go back to their rooms so they have had to camp in the garden.
nepal kungfu nun
Despite all these problems, they are willing to help.”  
kungu nun
According to him, these disasters show nature’s unhappiness with mankind's greed.: “From a spiritual point of view, we should not blame God but, instead, work with nature and respect it. Some people say that the earth is a mother. I don’t necessarily say that one should worship.
kung fu nuns
Respect, instead, means not being destructive. Scientists also say that,” he says.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Kenya: Five Things About Al-Shabaab and the Somalia Question...

Early Thursday morning militants from the al-Shabaab terror group stormed Garissa University College in Kenya and killed at least 147 students. The second worst terror attack in Kenya’s history lasted 13 hours and was made excruciatingly horrific by the fact that many of the victims remained in communication with their loved ones until the very last moments. Unbearable images of young students laying dead in their own pools of blood in classrooms will forever be etched in Kenyans’ memories. The attack echoed the September 21, 2013 Westgate Mall terror attack that killed 67 people. After Westgate many Somalia analysts insisted that such daring missions were the kicks of a dying horse, and cited successes by AMISOM and AFRICOM in taking back territory from al-Shabaab and decapitating the organization through drone strikes against it leadership.
Following Garissa, it might be time to reconsider this persistent narrative and overall Somalia policy in the Eastern African region. Here are my thoughts:
Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 9.51.35 AM1. Regional powers do not want a powerful central government in Mogadishu: Since independence several governments in Somalia have espoused a dream of re-uniting all the Somali lands and peoples in eastern Africa (under “Greater Somalia,” see map). That includes parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and more recently the breakaway regions of Somaliland and Puntland. A strong central government in Mogadishu would most certainly revive this old irredentist dream, despite the fact that the irredentist dreams of Somalia’s pre-Barre governments and the costly wars with Ethiopia (and proxy wars with Kenya as well thereafter) were the beginning of the end of stability in Somalia. Nairobi and Addis are acutely aware of this and that is part of the reason Kenya has for years maintained a policy of creating an autonomous buffer region in southern Somalia – Jubaland. The problem, however, is that a weak Mogadishu also means diffused coercive capacity and inability to fight off breakaway clans, militias, and terror groups like al-Shabaab.
The situation is complicated by the fact that Ethiopia and Kenya do not see eye to eye on the question of Jubaland. Addis Ababa is worried that a government in Jubaland dominated by the Ogaden clan could potentially empower the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a separatist Somali insurgent group it has fought in its southeastern Ogaden Region.
2. The African Union and its regional partners do not have a coherent game plan for Somalia: To a large extent, African governments fighting under AMISOM are merely carrying water for Western governments fighting jihadist elements in Somalia. The West pays and provides material and tactical support; and the West calls the shots. Ethiopia and Kenya have some room to maneuver, but overall policy is driven by AFRICOM and the Europeans. The lack of local ownership means that African troops, especially the Kenyan and Ugandan contingents, are in the fight primarily for the money. Kenyan generals are making money selling charcoal and smuggling sugar (the UN estimates thatal-Shabaab gets between US $38-56m annually from taxing the charcoal trade). The Ugandans are making money with private security contracts dished out to firms with close ties to Museveni’s brother. Only the Ethiopians appear to have a clear policy, on top of the general international goal of neutralizing al-Shabaab so that they do not attack Western targets.
What kind of settlement does Kenya (and Ethiopia) want to see in Somalia? (See above). What does the West want? What do Somalis want? Are these goals compatible in the long run?
3. The internationalization of the al-Shabaab menace is a problem: Western assistance in fighting al-Shabaab and stabilizing Somalia is obviously a good thing. But it should never have come at the cost of unnecessary internationalization of the conflict. Al-Shabaab has been able to get extra-Somalia assistance partly because it fashions itself as part of the global jihad against the kafir West and their African allies. Internationalization of the conflict has also allowed it to come up with an ideology that has enabled it to somehow overcome Somalia’s infamous clannish fractionalization (although elements of this still persist within the organization). Localizing the conflict would dent the group’s global appeal while at the same time providing opportunities for local solutions, including a non-military settlement. AMISOM and the West cannot simply bomb the group out of existence.
4. Kenya is the weakest link in the fight against al-Shabaab: Of the three key countries engaged in Somalia (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda), Kenya is the least militarized. It is also, perhaps, the least disciplined. According to the UN, Kenyan troops are engaging in illegal activities that are filling the coffers of al-Shabaab militants (charcoal worth at least $250 million was shipped out of Somalia in the last two years). Back home, Nairobi has allowed its Somalia policy to be captured by a section of Somali elites that have other agendas at variance with overall national policy. The Kenya Defense Force (KDF) risks becoming a mere pawn in the clannish struggles that straddle the Kenya-Somalia border. It is high time Nairobi reconsidered its Somalia policy with a view of decoupling it from the sectional fights in Northeastern Province. The first step should be to make the border with Somalia real by fixing customs and border patrol agencies; and by reining in sections of Somali elites who continue to engage in costly fights at the expense of ordinary wananchi. The government should adopt a strict policy of not taking sides in these fights, and strictly enforce this policy at the County level.
5. Kenya will continue to be the weakest link in the fight against al-Shabaab: Of the countries in Somalia Kenya is the only democracy with a government that is nominally accountable to its population and an armed force with a civilian leadership. This means that:
(i) Generals can run rings around State House and its securocrats: Unlike their counterparts in Uganda and Ethiopia, the Kenyan generals do not have incentives to internalize the costs of the war in Somalia. The cost is mostly borne by the civilian leadership. They are therefore likely to suggest policies that primarily benefit the institution of the military, which at times may not be in the best interest of the nation. And the civilian leadership, lacking expertise in military affairs, is likely to defer to the men in uniform. The result is makaa-sukari and other glaring failures.
(ii) Kenyan internal security policies are subject to politicization: With every al-Shabaab attack (so far more than 360 people have been killed) Kenyans have wondered why Ethiopia, which is also in Somalia and has a large Somali population, has remained relatively safe. My guess is that Ethiopia has done better in thwarting attacks because it has a coherent domestic security policy backed by unchecked coercion and surveillance of potential points of al-Shabaab entry among its Somali population.
Now, Kenya should not emulate Ethiopia’s heavy-handed tactics. Instead, focus should be on an honest assessment of how internal security policies in Mandera, Garissa, Wajir, Kwale, Kilifi, Mombasa, Nairobi, and elsewhere are playing into the hands of al-Shabaab. What is the best way to secure the “front-line” counties that border Somalia? What is the role of local leaders in ensuring that local cleavages and conflicts are not exploited by al-Shabaab? How should the security sector (Police and KDF) be reformed to align its goals with the national interest? What is the overarching goal of the KDF in Somalia and how long will it take to achieve that goal? How is the government counteractingdomestic radicalization and recruitment of young Kenyan men and women by al-Shabaab?
These questions do not have easy answers. But Kenyans must try. The reflexive use of curfews and emergency laws, and the blunt collective victimization of communities suspected to be al-Shabaab sympathizers will not work.
I do not envy President Uhuru Kenyatta: Withdrawing from Somalia will not secure the homeland. Staying the course will likely not yield desired results given the rot in KDF and the internal politics of northeastern Kenya. Reforming the police and overall security apparatus comes with enormous political costs. A recent shake up of security chiefs and rumors of an impending cabinet reshuffle are signs that Kenyatta has realized the enormity of the insecurity situation in the country (and overall government ineffectiveness due to corruption). But will Kenyans be patient and give him the benefit of the doubt? Will the president be able to channel his laudable nationalist instincts in galvanizing the nation in the face of seemingly insurmountable security threats and ever more corrupt government officials?
Meanwhile 2017 is approaching fast, and if the situation doesn’t change Mr. Kenyatta might not be able to shrug off the title of “Goodluck Jonathan of the East.”
For the sake of Kenyan lives and the Jamuhuri, nakutakia kila la heri Bwana Rais.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Feminist Heroes to Teach Kids Their ABCs in Badass New Picturebook...

Why just learn your ABCs when you can be empowered by them? A new illustrated children’s book from iconic City Lights press, Rad American Women A-Z, offers kids the chance to educate themselves on women’s history and the alphabet at the same time. Written by Kate Schatz and illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl, the book was inspired by Schatz’s two-year-old daughter. As the writer told Mic, the book was created to fill the “feminist-shaped hole in children's literature,” and goes from A (for Angela Davis) to Z (Zora Neale Hurston).
Rad American Women A-Z strays from both traditional children’s and history books in more ways than one, featuring an equal proportion of women of color, as well as several members of the LGBT community. As Schatz mentioned in a press release, “I wanted to focus on the stories that aren't always part of the standard telling of women's history. With all respect to Susan B. and Rosa and Helen and Gloria, I want to try to introduce readers to women they aren't likely to have heard of.” This includes women ranging from architect Maya Lin, to prolific sci fi writer Ursula K. La Guin, to punk singer Patti Smith.

Monday, April 6, 2015

‘Islamic State’ as a Western Phenomenon: Reimagining the IS Debate...

It is as if leaders of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) are getting tips on demonising Muslims from world leading Islamophobes and as if they are trying to live up to the expectations of hate-mongering organisations like that of Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative, whose latest ads all over San Francisco compared Muslims to Nazis.
Yet, no matter how one attempts to wrangle with IS’s rise in Iraq and Syria, desperately seeking any political or other context that would validate the movement as an explainable historical development, things refuse to add up.
Western Connection
Not only is IS to a degree an alien movement in the larger body politic of the Middle East, it also seems to be a partly western phenomenon, a hideous offspring resulting from western neocolonial adventures in the region, coupled with alienation and demonisation of Muslim communities in western societies.
By “Western phenomenon,” I refrain from suggesting that IS is largely a creation of western intelligence as many conspiracy theories have persistently advocated. Of course, one is justified in raising questions regarding funds, armaments, black market oil trade, and the ease through which thousands of western and Arab fighters managed to reach Syria and Iraq in recent years. The crimes carried out by the Assad regime, his army and allies during the four-year long Syria civil war, and the unquenchable appetite to orchestrate a regime change in Damascus as a paramount priority for Western powers made nourishing the anti-Assad forces with wannabe “jihadists” justified, if not encouraged.
The latest announcement by Turkey’s foreign minister Meylut Cavusoglu of the arrest of a spy “working for the intelligence service of a country participating in the coalition against ISIS” – presumably Canada – allegedly for helping three young British girls join IS, was revealing. The accusation feeds into a growing discourse that locates IS within a western, not Middle Eastern discourse.
Still, it is not the conspiracy per se that I find intriguing, if not puzzling, but the ongoing, albeit indirect conversation between IS and the West, involving French, British and Australian so-called “Jihadists”, their sympathisers and supporters on one hand, and various western governments, intelligence services, right-wing media pundits, etc on the other.
Much of the discourse – once upon a time located within a narrative consumed by the “Arab Spring”, sectarian divisions and counter revolutions – has now been transferred into another sphere that seems of little relevance to the Middle East. Regardless of where one stands on how Mohammad Emwazi morphed into a “Jihadi John”,the conversation is oddly largely removed from its geopolitical context. In this instance, it is an essentially British issue concerning alienation, racism, economic and cultural marginalization, perhaps as much as the issue of the “born, raised and radicalised” attackers of Charlie Hebdo is principally a French question, pertaining to the same socioeconomic fault lines.
The Other ‘Roots of IS’
The conventional analysis on the rise of IS no longer suffices. Tracing the movement to Oct 2006 when the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) – uniting various groups including al-Qaeda – was established, simply suggests a starting point to the discussion, whose roots go back to the dismantling of the Iraqi state and army by the US military occupation authority. Just the idea that the Arab republic of Iraq was led from 11 May 2003 until 28 June 2004 by a Lewis Paul Bremer III, is enough to delineate the unredeemable rupture in the country’s identity. Bremer and US military chiefs’ manipulation of Iraq’s sectarian vulnerabilities, in addition to the massive security vacuum created by sending an entire army home, ushered in the rise of numerous groups, some homegrown resistance movements, and other alien bodies who sought in Iraq a refugee, or a rallying cry.
Also conveniently missing in the rise of “jihadism” context is the staggering brutality of Shia-dominated governments in Baghdad and militias throughout Iraq, with full backing by the US and Iran. If the US war (1990-1), blockade (1991-2003), invasion (2003) and subsequent occupation of Iraq were not enough to radicalise a whole generation, then brutality, marginalisation and constant targeting of Iraqi Sunnis in post-invasion Iraq have certainly done the job.
The conventional media narrative on IS focuses mostly on the politicking, division and unity that happened between various groups, but ignores the reasons behind the existence of these groups in the first place.
The Syria Expansion
The Syria civil war was another opportunity at expansion sought successfully by ISI, whose capital until then was Baquba, Iraq. ISI was headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a key player in the establishment of Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra Front). The highly cited breakup between al-Baghdadi and al-Nusra leader Mohammed al-Golani is referenced as the final stage of IS’s brutal rise to power and ISI becoming ISIL or ISIS, before settling finally at the current designation of simply “Islamic State”, or IS.
Following the division, “some estimates suggest that about 65 percent of Jabhat al-Nusra elements quickly declared their allegiance to ISIS. Most of those were non-Syrian jihadists,” reported Lebanon’s al-Safir.
Militants’ politicking aside, such massively destructive and highly organised occurrences are not born in a vacuum and don’t operate independently from many existing platforms that help spawn, arm, fund and sustain them. For example, IS’s access to oil refineries says nothing about its access to wealth. To obtain funds from existing economic modes, IS needed to tap into a complex economic apparatus that would involve other countries, regional and international markets. In other words, IS exists because there are those who are invested in their existence, and the highly touted anti-IS coalition has evidently done little to confront this reality.
Intellectual Arrogance and Western Muslim Debate
Particularly interesting is the rapidly changing focal point of the debate, from that pertaining to Syria and Iraq, to a western-centric discussion about western-styled jihadists that seem removed from the Middle East region and its political conflicts and priorities.
In a letter signed by over a hundred Muslim scholars that was published last September, the theologians and clergymen from around the Muslim word rightly disowned IS and its bloodthirsty ambitions as un-Islamic. Indeed, IS’s war tactics are the reverse of the rules of war in Islam, and have been a godsend to those who made successful careers by simply bashing Islam, and advocating foreign policies that are predicated on an irrational fear of Muslims. But particularly interesting was the Arabic version of the letter’s emphasis on IS’s lack of command over the Arabic language, efficiency in which is a requirement for making legal Islamic rulings and fatwas.
“Who gave you authority over the ummah [Muslim people]?” asked the letter. “A group of no more than several thousand has appointed itself the ruler of over a billion-and-a-half Muslims. This attitude is based upon a corrupt circular logic that says: ‘Only we are Muslims, and we decide who the caliph is, we have chosen one and so whoever does not accept our caliph is not a Muslim.’”
The letter confronts the intellectual arrogance of IS, which is based mostly on a misguided knowledge of Islam that is rarely spawned in the region itself. But that intellectual arrogance that has led to the murders of many innocent people, and other hideous crimes such as the legalisation of slavery – again, to the satisfaction of the numerous Islamophobes dotting western intellectual landscapes – is largely situated in a different cultural and political context outside of the Middle East.
In post-11 September attacks, a debate concerning Islam has been raging, partly because the attacks were blamed on Muslims, thus allowing politicians to create distractions, and reduce the discussion into one concerning religion and a purported “clash of civilizations”. Despite various assurances by Western leaders that the US-led wars in Muslim countries is not a war on Islam, Islam remains the crux of the intellectual discourse that has adjoined the military “crusade” declared by George W Bush, starting with the first bomb dropped on Afghanistan in 2001.
That discourse is too involved for a transitory mention, for it is an essential one to the IS story. It is one that has involved various schools of thought, including a breed of Muslim “liberals”, used conveniently to juxtapose them with an “extremist” bunch. Yet between the apologists and the so-called jihadists, a genuine, Muslim-led discussion about Islam by non-coopted Muslim scholars remains missing.
The intellectual vacuum is more dangerous than it may seem. There is no question that while the battle is raging on in the Middle East region, the discourse itself is increasingly being manipulated and is becoming a Western one. This is why IS is speaking English, for its language complete with authentic western accents, methods, messages and even the orange hostage jumpsuits, is centred in some other sociopolitical and cultural context.
It is strange, but telling, how a discussion that began with uprisings for freedom and equality in Arab countries has been reduced to those concerning Islamic revival – liberal western Muslims vs extremists, Jihadi Johns, and western “spies” recruiting western Muslim youth, escaping marginalisation in their own communities. Yet, instead of serving as a wake-up call and urgent need for introspection by the West, there is a stubborn insistence on using IS as a springboard for more interventionism in the Middle East, thus feeding the cycle of violence, without confronting its roots.
- Ramzy Baroud – – is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of He is currently completing his PhD studies at the University of Exeter. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Art Of Syrian Refugees Sends A Message. Is Anyone Listening?

In "Exile From One's Country," Mohammed Al-Amari captures the pain of a Syrian girl.
In "Exile From One's Country," Mohammed Al-Amari captures the pain of a Syrian girl.
Courtesy of Mohammed Al Amari
When Syrian artist Mohammed Al-Amari, 27, fled the country's civil war last winter he couldn't carry much. Just some clothes, and little else, he says. But he did manage to bring some "colors" with him — watercolors, pastels and even a few of his paintings.
The artist Mohammed Al-Amari, who fled Syria last winter, uses his paints and pastels to capture the lives of refugees and to remember the country they left behind.
The artist Mohammed Al-Amari, who fled Syria last winter, uses his paints and pastels to capture the lives of refugees and to remember the country they left behind.
Courtesy of International Relief and Development
Al-Amari and his wife didn't want to leave their home in Daraa province in southwestern Syria. They stayed for the first three years of the war, but eventually moved from their village to another one that was further from the conflict.
Last year, they reached a point when they couldn't stay any longer. Al-Amari is an elementary school art teacher. But in this village, no one was going to school.
"There was no money. There was nowhere to work, nothing to do to support myself and my family," he says. "It felt like all the life stopped."
So they made a risky 15-hour journey, driving to the Jordanian border and then walking over to join at least 3 million other Syrians who have left their country as refugees.
Now he and his wife, and their new baby, live in Za'atari Camp, a veritable city in the desert in Jordan, where more than 83,000 refugees live. Al-Amari is teaching art again as a volunteer, a few hours each day. To fill the rest of his time, he captures Syrian life – suspended — in his art.
Waiting is a major theme. What will come next, and when? This question preys on the minds of most people in the camp, says Al-Amari.
"My Grandmother" is the title of this Al-Amari portrait.i
"My Grandmother" is the title of this Al-Amari portrait.
Courtesy of Mohammed Al Amari
First, there's the day-to-day kind of waiting. Stuck within the borders of the dusty 5-square-mile camp, with its rows and rows of tents and trailers, Al-Amari craves a change of scenery.
"Sometimes we feel like the camp is a prison. It takes 5 months to maybe get just a 1 to 2 day pass to leave the camp, to go to Amman, the capital of Jordan, just to get out of this environment," Al-Amari says. "And that's if the local authorities approve my leaving the camp."
Then there's the bigger picture kind of waiting, a symptom of the vast uncertainty Syrians face. They have no idea when the war might end, or when they will be able to resume anything resembling normal life.
Al-Amari paints the faces of children, of women, of his grandmother, all with this one thing in common.
"They're waiting," he explains. "When I see it, when I paint it, they're waiting for a moment when they can return to the life as it was, when it used to be beautiful. We hope that the future will be more beautiful. But at the same time I feel the abyss. The path could also go for the worse. "
It's hard to stay hopeful. But it's easy to feel nostalgia.
Al-Amari met other artists in the camp. Together, they cast into their memories and draw what they remember; sometimes, iconic Syrian monuments that they fear will not survive the war, like the 2nd century Roman theater in Bosra or the ancient city walls in Damascus. All six of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites in Syria are now damaged, or in danger, or both, and many other historic sites have been destroyed.
This 2nd-century Roman theater is in the ancient city of Bosra, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This 2nd-century Roman theater is in the ancient city of Bosra, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Courtesy of Mohammed Al Amari
"We're taking a picture of Syria — how it was, how the villages looked, how the cities looked" before the war, says Al-Amari.
But Al-Amari is determined to do more than just wait. He vows to make something of his time in Za'atari Camp. Many artists have worked under trying conditions, he tells himself. He and his artist friends in the camp can do the same.
"We haven't stopped [doing] what we love."
He hopes his work can touch people inside the camp, where International Relief and Development (IRD) has supported the artists with supplies and a place to work. Camp artists have painted murals on the sides of canvas tents and staged four gallery shows.
Al-Amari says that maybe getting his images out into the world, as he has in exhibitions from Amman, Jordan, to California, will lead to some kind of change in the situation for Syria refugees.
His friend, 24-year-old artist Mahmoud Al-Hariri, agrees.
"Through our art, we've worked on sharing so many messages, trying to help life in the camp to improve, get word out about what's happening in Syria, show the pain one feels as a refugee, show sadness and devastation inside the country," says Al-Hariri.
But actual change? That's another waiting game for these artists.
"In the end, these messages, they haven't changed anything we see on the ground, and that is what's missing," Al-Hariri explains. "It's like writing a letter, and no one gives you a response."