Posted by on October 08, 2014 in Blog

By Kristyn Acho
Fall Intern, 2014

In times of conflict, individuals have often found art to be an effective device to document experiences and to address political and social grievances.

The artists and filmmakers featured in the Syria Relief and Development’s upcoming event in Washington, D.C. on October 13 and 14, called “Art in Exile,” are no different. Each artist included in the affair will present a piece that revolves around political themes and discussions of political events and exile.

However, perhaps more interestingly, the event will provide attendees with a human perspective on the ongoing crisis in Syria. Personal revelations, self-reflection, and questions regarding identity will all be explored through film, photography, graphic design, and paint mediums.

What unique challenges do artists face in times of tyranny, war, and exile? And how do exiled artists conceptualize and present their transient identities? We spoke to Syria Relief and Development to find out. 

The crisis in Yarmouk Camp has become more severe in recent days, with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reporting that they were unable to distribute food to civilians on Tuesday, September 29 due to gunfire and mortars. In what ways do you hope this event will address the situation in Syria?

Art and film is a powerful tool for those who wish to reclaim their dignity, freedom and self-expression.  Through this two day film festival, discussions, and art exhibition, we hope to reawaken the international community to the humanity behind the conflict by showing what was and what has been lost through a variety of mediums. On October 13th, Chebabs of Yarmouk and the short film MiG, narrated and produced by former resident of Yarmouk, Thaer alSahli, and a simultaneous art exhibition featuring artists from Yarmouk Camp allow the people to speak for themselves over the heads of the politicians and the fighters. The art exhibition will be open all day October 13 –14 and audience members will have a chance to view the artwork in between screenings. 

The first night will provide a snapshot of life in Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, which has been under varying degrees of siege since August of last year. Nearly 169 civilians have died of hunger, treatable diseases, and dehydration in that time. In addition to a mass forced displacement of civilians, the people of Yarmouk have suffered under barrel bombings and MiG attacks. A ceasefire eased the severity of the siege last spring but without a firm commitment to the protection of the camp’s civilians, the fate of its residents remains in peril. For nearly 20 days, the camp has been without water. This is unacceptable. Yarmouk is a few kilometers away from the Old City of Damascus where restaurants open for business and there is relative peace. Artists, filmmakers, and journalists featured in the event will call attention to the plight of Syrian Palestinians in exile where they do not have possibility of return to their homeland, resettlement to the United States, or the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The camp is still under threat of siege and bombings by the regime, the opposition, and outside forces.

The first night of the event features two film screenings (Chebabs de Yarmouk, 2011 and MiG, 2011) which explore physical and artistic exile within the confines of Yarmouk. What types of themes do you hope to discuss during the discussion panels following the screenings of these films?

Prior to the uprising, Yarmouk had the highest concentration of Palestinians in Syria (at 160,000 as of 2011). While constrained politically by the Assad regimes, the neighborhood remains at the heart of Palestinian refugee identity and culture. Palestinians from every political faction, as well as artists, activists, actors, and musicians, found a home here, because Bashar al-Assad, like his father, allowed the Palestinian cause limited means of expression as long as the movement served to build his cult of personality and never threatened his rule. After the uprising began and the camp was targeted, many artists fled and found both catharsis and a new means of expression through their artwork. Others remained in the camp as an act of defiance, refusing to be twice displaced.

Hassan Hassan, the actor and main protagonist of Chebabs of Yarmouk, stayed in Yarmouk. Upon attempting to leave the camp, he was captured, tortured and killed by the regime. The films, panel discussions, and artwork are a tribute to Hassan and all of the young men and women who have needlessly been killed and continue to be under threat. “Art in Exile” showcases artists in exile that remain committed to the people who remain in the camp and others who are in limbo, literally dying to get out but with no freedom to travel and no nationality to call their own. Their dilemma is perfectly captured by a conversation between Hassan and his wife, Waed: “Will we forever have to be the camp’s children? Won’t we ever become a country’s children?”  

On the second evening of the festival, the documentary A Tale of Two Syrias will screen. This film follows the lives of a monk and a fashion designer before the crisis in Syria began. Why did you think it was important to include this film, which offers a look at the crisis from two unique perspectives, in the festival?

A Tale of Two Syrias was mostly filmed just prior to the conflict. It has been a difficult film for the producer to talk about or screen due to the highly precarious situation of the characters in the film today. Audience goers will understand once they watch this beautifully filmed and insightful movie and have a conversation with the filmmaker, Yasmin Fedda, which they will be able to do at the “Art in Exile” October 14 screening.  The film offers a glimpse into the potential for both reform and conflict in the year prior to the uprising. Yasmin captures both the beauty of Syria and, through two very likable and humorous but unlikely heroes, the chance for progress that was lost. Through conversations, the filmmaker captures active debates on what freedom means to young Syrians prior to the uprising. The relevance of those conversations to the current conflict might surprise audience members.

Can you tell us about the pop-up exhibit, “Artists Twice Displaced”?

“Artists Twice Displaced” features Syrian-Palestinian artists who were raised in Yarmouk Camp. While Niraz Saeid stayed in the camp, most of the artists have their own stories for how they escaped and ended up scattered around the world, from Ain el Hilweh, Lebanon, to Paris, Oslo, and Gotland, Sweden. While still in precarious positions as both Palestinians and Syrian refugees, they have generously chosen to sell their artwork and donate all of the proceeds to Jafra Foundation, a humanitarian organization that helps civilians in the camps in Syria and assists the camps’ former residents in Lebanon.

How did you choose which artists to include in the exhibition?

Quite simply, they were chosen for their talent and commitment to both their artwork and community.  The artists hail from a particularly tight knit community of Syrian Palestinians from Yarmouk. All of them have used their artwork to highlight injustice in Syria, in flight, and in exile. Some of the artists have even faced harsh persecution during both the Bashar and Hafez era. One of the artists, the photographer Niraz Saied, has actually remained in the camp where he risks his life to document life in the camp. In addition to “Art in Exile,” he has submitted his photography to various news outlets to remind people of the bitter conditions in Yarmouk. For these artists, their work is both cathartic and a means to express their experience and outrage with political and social injustice. 

What types of mediums are these artists working in (photography, video, canvas, sculpture, etc.)?

The exhibit features various mediums including photographs, graphic design, and painting. One of the artists, Anas Salameh has actually used coffee grounds from Yarmouk to paint his pieces for this exhibit. We feel that this perfectly encapsulates the theme of “Art in Exile” – not losing yourself, your history, or the struggle in exile.

Proceeds from sold artwork will go to the Jafra Foundation. What kind of humanitarian initiatives does this organization take part in?

The proceeds of the ticket sales to the film screenings (available online at are fully donated to Syria Relief and Development's humanitarian programs in Syria and in Jordan. SRD is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that aims to plant the seeds of sustainable development for Syrians in need and provides humanitarian aid in the form of food, shelter and medical care to the people of Syria. The artwork sold will be donated, in full, to Jafra Foundation for Relief and Youth Development which works to improve the living conditions prevailing in the Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, by involving young people in the development process and enhancing sustainable development in the aid process.

Their activities include: providing relief and shelter to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the Palestinian Camps in Syria, distributing food to families in need (who are either displaced or residing in areas where movement is prohibited due to the armed conflict), providing psychological support to women and children, providing education to IDPs, providing waste disposal and cleaning, and creating an Emergency Response Team (firefighting, evacuation, rescue) in areas without NGO or governmental services such as Yarmouk Camp.

“Art in Exile” will take place on October 13 and 14 from 6:30 – 10:00 pm at the Goethe-Institut in Washington, D.C. Tickets are on sale for $12 per day.

For more information on “Art in Exile” and Syria Relief & Development visit their website.