Hope Square conversation

IMG_1421Last night was an event at our local community cafe, the Hill Station, where there was a screening and discussion about the first steps in a public art project led by Artmongers and Bold Vision, aiming at a ‘cultural twinning’ of our community with a Syrian refugee camp in Azraq in Jordan. Bold Vision is the charity at the heart of our community in SE14 (Telegraph Hill/New Cross Gate) that helps give agency to people, for example to run the library closed by the council, to build a community cafe, to carve common gardens out of scrappy land and so on. Incidentally, see the Underhillians mural in this photo – which I’ve created with other local artists and ideas of many children. This is an example of how Bold Vision’s spaces are enlivened by creativity. Catherine Shovlin is one of their key people. It aims to build creative skills, agency and social cohesion. And Artmongers is a local art business run by Patricio Forrester, who helped set up Bold Vision.

What if you took some of this artistic approach, with a big dose of goodwill from our locality, to a Syrian refugee camp?

Patricio and Catherine showed a short documentary film of their artmaking activities in Azraq for 8 days this summer, then we had a discussion about its impacts and what we could build on. They plan to return in March, and also there are many things we can do here, to connect with the camp.

Patricio had the idea 2 years ago and it came about through Catherine’s link with the charity, Care International, who provided support with the journey and accommodation. They couldn’t go into Syria, as it’s too dangerous.

Catherine set the scene: Imagine having 15 million refugees coming to your country. That proportionally is Jordan taking refugees from Syria. The population of Azrac camp is 20,000 and growing, and has three different ‘towns’.

When Catherine and Patricio arrived, it felt tougher than they had expected to know where to begin. There was no precedent in the camp, or in the previous work of Artmongers. It was hard for them to understand what it was like for the refugees, to have fled in the night, to cross the border, to not know how to live. They found the whole camp so quiet, no radios, no chatter, just people inside their shelters wondering what to do next. The boredom is crushing. There is no sense of when they might have something meaningful to do again.

Patricio was affected by the silence and for a while couldn’t talk. (Later, when he got to a paint shop he felt himself and could talk at last! That says a lot about the experience of being in limbo – that people come alive and be themselves when they are with tools they know how to use and have a purpose to use them – and conversely die inside without it.)

Catherine began the process by going into homes with a questionnaire. This was based on the RSA’s Social Mirrorresearch which had been piloted in New Cross Gate. It used the NEF Five Measures of Wellbeing, and asked questions about their social connections, activities and needs.

One question was: how many people outside the family did you speak to yesterday? For women the answer was invariably ‘none’, as they are expected to stay indoors. Also, the people don’t have skills and confidence to make friends because they had grown up in traditional villages where you don’t have to continually forge a community.

The strong theme in their responses was: we want colour! So, they went to buy paint.

They began by training some helpers. These people had doubts on the first day but then on the second day they all turned up willing and confident for their training. They were fully ready to embark on something that would help improve their camp.

The first activity was called Peace Rocks. They worked with materials they could find, which was rocks on the ground. Children (and adults) picked one, tied string round it, dipped it in paint of different colours, then a bit of glitter, then tied it to a fence. Patricio first tried to insist they only used one colour each, but the children had a better idea – to double or triple dip – leading to a much more marbled result. Some people found the experience so exciting and joyful, such a simple act of mixing colours and making something in your own way.

It had a lot of subversive symbolic power too. The people are very worried about further uprising and insecurity in their lives, so there are fears around the idea of picking rocks off the ground which could be thrown. The colonel in charge said “you are decorating weapons”, so in response they decided to call them ‘peace rocks’. A rock is a weapon until you paint it. The other symbolic dimension was that people felt stuck in the floor like the rocks on ground so lifting them up to transform them with colour felt like a transformation of self.

CKdS-zSVEAA0WvQThe next morning, unexpectedly, all the rocks had gone. Everyone had taken them home. Apparently, the instinct in the camp is to focus on your home, to protect your family, to take and keep things there and personalise your home. Things like communally planted trees or artificial turf had all disappeared. While some homes have nothing but a mat on floor and a UN aid box (refusing to accept they have to make a home), others use found materials to make ornaments and to delineate spaces. The head of Care International explained that the people do not come from the same community. Syria is not one homogenous place. Also, because the people are not in a position to create a thriving self-managed and sustainable city in their camp, a sense of community is not built over night.

After the Peace Rocks activity, they decided to create a shared public space where people might want to meet, to stimulate a sense of community. Catherine was struck that there were no benches where people sat to chat. There was a mosque built from shelters but it was used only by men. Any place of value such as a school or computer building is fenced off, so there are very few shared places without barbed wire. So they created Hope Square, by painting large diamond shapes of different colours on the buildings. Hope Square was the first place in the camp to have a name.


After working all day during Ramadan in 46 degree heat, totally sweaty and exhausted, Patricio was lifted up to hear one participant say “They let us see the rainbow again”. Another said that “the colour makes it more comfortable to the eye”. The people were left with supplies of paint and brushes so they could do what they wanted with it, and continue the work. It really did give a sense of agency, as normally the supplies they are given are just to help them survive (gas, water, food) and they feel they are treated as children. With creative materials, they can make decisions, and it may lead to more empowerment. For example, they may start to give names to more places or to exchange their skills. Because the place is so bureaucratic, militarised and controlled, people tend towards being passive. The hope is that if you give people paint and wake them up to creative possibility, it can inspire further ways of creating, learning and sharing.

So, what next? Did this, as action-research, generate ideas for more ways of supporting them?

Some ideas that came from the camp included the ‘cultural twinning’ which could include live streaming of music in both places, or online exchanges by teens (to learn English, for example). One idea was that we in SE14 could choose to hang a peace rock outside our own houses as a symbol of connection. Patricio is also thinking of doing something with kites, as there is so much wind in the desert and people often fly kites on our Telegraph Hill.

There are more practical ways to help: For example, there are only around 100 books in the camp library so perhaps we can provide access to more books, paper or digital. There is only schooling, provided by aid charities, for about 15-20% of children so how can we support their learning? (Graham Brown-Martin was at the meeting – and he has been helping to establish digitally-enabled schooling in another camp.) We could also think about creative ways of preventing trees from being taken from the shared spaces.

There is a big issue about whether or not the people are allowed to start any economic activity. DfID wants to prove that forming a market in the camps will make people feel better and build security. However, Jordanians are in some ways poorer than the refugees in the camp as they are not in receipt of aid, so they would be angry if this was allowed. I’m wondering if they should consider economic activity that involves no money, such as using a Local Exchange and Trading Scheme, or where all income goes towards common good projects. Has this been considered? How can creative projects start to stimulate this thinking?

One next step is to discuss how this work might also extend to support people still in Syria, refugees that are on the move, having to leave camps or not able to find shelter in camps, and refugees from other countries. In the meeting was also Augusta Quiney, who leads the artist engagement programme for Amnesty International. She explained that People on the Move is one of their next two major global campaigns so this may be a good route to feeding into a bigger initiative.

Peace Rocks!

Twinning: growing girl power

Our original idea with the ChangeMakers was to have young adults 18-25 years old. What we quickly discovered though was that would mean girls and boys could not work together. So instead we decided to work with 13-16 year olds.  Some of the people we talked to were still sceptical about whether that could work but we decided to give it a go anyway.

Peace ROCKS 1a

In the first session I ran, we had about twice as many boys as girls. They were bigger, more physically noticeable and more demanding of attention. The girls would have been easily overlooked. So although letting each one of the 25 of them have their say and explain what JOY means to them, and let the interpreter explain it to me took a lot of time, it was an important shift. It meant the girls did speak. And they expressed themselves capably and beautifully which gave them more confidence. By the end of our 2 hour session they were sitting a little taller and more assuredly.

The next day as I arrived I started to see people I recognised from that session. And they recognised me. Already things felt a little different to the day before. I had asked the staff to gather 2 smaller groups, still with a 50/50 gender balance of young people, to get started on the baseline research. I explained the idea to them, they practiced on each other and then we set out to interview residents and gather data.

At first my young researchers were very hesitant. It is not easy to knock on doors in any context and this was no exception. The boys were more prepared to just get on with it but I could see how the girls really wanted to run away, how they were wishing they hadn’t signed up for this. I also know from my own experience that this awkwardness is part of the process that has to be gone through to get to the other side. I couldn’t speak directly to them because of the language barrier but could be there for them in the background and loved seeing them grow in stature and confidence as they progressed. By the time they came back the next day to do more they all looked a foot taller and three years older. They were proud of their new skill and I was proud of them.

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Interesting to how despite all the terrible reasons why they are there, these girls and other women in the camp may have experiences and develop skills and confidence there that they would never have been able to do in the villages. I’m no expert on the local culture, but that was the sense I got from the experience. Maybe in the long run some good also comes out of the situation in terms of the isolation of the women in their homes.

(for security reasons and for their safety, we can’t post pictures of them here, hence more generic shots)

You can contribute here and help train a researcher or get involved.

Twinning: Hope Square

When we decided to create the Hill Station we decided as members of our community that we wanted to see something change for the better. We found a space, we found money, we found each other to help make it happen and we created something that we all feel is our own.

That’s a process we hope to reinterpret for the refugee camp where we are working. They have public spaces of course but most of them – the school, the community centre, the sports ground – are owned by an institution. the exception we found was a mosque that the residents had ingeniously created with wire and blankets and waste insulation material, between 4 of the shelters. It had a completely different feel to the rest of the camp. A cared for feel. And innovative too – 20,000 refugees have these solar lamps and it’s the first time anybody had seen them suspended in the ceiling like this (charging panel on the top of the lamp is therefore outside).


So after conversations and workshops with young people, residents, staff and volunteers some common themes started to emerge. A need for colour, a hunger for the natural world, an appetite for making the shelters more like homes. A wish for more love and more togetherness. We started looking for a space to make this happen.

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Everybody needs water. For some of the women it’s the only time they leave the shelter all day, gathering at the water tap with an assortment of containers. The children have made sleds from half containers so they can drag the heavy vessels back instead of carrying them. Some had even created wheelbarrows using discarded crates from the supermarket, wheels from somewhere and pieces of wood. It’s the only time we saw people standing and chatting.

There’s a water tap on each of the 15 blocks of the village where we are working. We plumped for the one nearest the school and the bridge to the other village. When we discovered the community made mosque on the side of this square it was perfect.

Time is short so the design needed to be strong. Working to create the space, visible at a distance and able to be implemented by Patricio and his team of volunteer painter artists. The play between diamonds and squares, the echo of the roofline, the need for strong colours converged in this design for the shelters and toilets around the square. It is now being implemented. They have decided to call it Hope Square.

Diamond 1

diamond 2



Twinning project: capacity building

I am just back from a hot, dry, intense week at the refugee camp working on this project.

You can see more about the exciting developments on the art side here, this posting is about the people and the research.

On arrival at the camp, the vastness is the first thing that strikes you. Rows of shelters as far as the eye can see. The absence of colour. The absence of signs of life. No trees or plants because of the climate. No landmarks, nothing holding up the sky. The single storey shelters spread over the undulating rocky ground like a carpet.

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You wouldn’t know there were thousands of people living here. No radios are playing, no groups gathering on corners chatting. There are a few children going to school, some people collecting water. A small stream of refugees trekking across the windy open spaces to the supermarket. It feels very temporary. Very un-owned by the residents.


The first requirement was to understand the dynamics of the place. There are lots of stakeholders (government, NGOs etc) and we were guests. We needed to play by the rules more than we normally have to, We met loads of amazing staff members and volunteers who put hours of effort into the social needs of the refugees. I read some of the English books I’d taken along with some teenage boys keen to improve their language skills. And some young women reading Dan Brown (!) on the tablets they have occasional access to were delighted to see the crowdfunding video we made and recognise the shelters.
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I will post pictures of some of the people once we have the permissions / clearance to do so.

I then got to meet the young people who would be working with us to implement both projects. That first workshop was a bit crazy! As you would expect, the children have been through a lot and find it hard to concentrate. Both they and the local staff were a bit puzzled to be asked to draw ‘joy’ – not used to working conceptually. We got there though – lots of calls for nature, love, football and things that ways to make a shelter look more like a home.File Jul 16, 17 28 44

From the group of 25 we selected 8 who would be the research crew. For a more robust process given that we were crossing a language barrier, using teenagers and working with some illiteracy issues, I had designed a pictorial research sheet.

You can contribute here and help train a researcher or get involved.

Bold Vision twinning project update: Peace ROCKS

Peace ROCKS 1We have had two streams of working with young people in the refugee camp. Patricio has been running workshops with kids to transform a very common object in this bleak environment (rocks) into precious stones, things of beauty. An early breakthrough came with the thought of combining two undesirable aspects – fences and rocks – into a new way to view them.

Then, after a dash to the paint shop in the nearest town, the workshop got going. Originally intended to be for children, the staff couldn’t resist getting involved to. From the security guards to the boss man, everybody was keen to have a go and create their own precious stone.

Peace ROCKS 1b

Peace ROCKS 4By the end of the day the fence was transformed into a glittering, vertical Aladdin’s cave. When we left for the night people were approaching the fence with a look of wonder. Beauty is hard to come by in this environment and the combination of colour and sparkle made each stone an individual work of art.

No great surprise then that by morning all of the stones had disappeared, been untied and taken away to be part of individual refugees’ temporary homes.

At first it was a shock, but we quickly came to realise that this degree of engagement, of hunger for beautiful objects was a strong endorsement of the idea. More paint was procured and more workshops organised.

The bigger plan is that next Tuesday – when it is Eid, normally a time of great festivities in Muslim communities but with little to look forward to for residents here – Patricio will run a giant rock dipping event. Our crazy ambitious target is that every child (over 4000 of them) gets the chance to make a rock. They will then be displayed on the tall, barbed wire topped fence around the school.

Contribute here and be part of peace rocks
Peace ROCKS 3 Peace ROCKS 10