7 art initiatives that are transforming the lives of refugees

Photo of a mural done in Zaatari refugee camp,.

If you’re visiting Paris over the coming months – the walls along the Seine may look a little different.

A photo exhibition along the banks now includes a 370-meter long panorama featuring portraits of refugees and photographs taken by Syrian refugee children living in Iraq.

The exhibition is titled “Dreams of Humanity” and was organized in collaboration with famous photojournalist Reza in partnership with UNHCR.

So what exactly is the objective of the photographs? Reza explains that at the core of this project is the hope that the photos will provide a way for refugee children to tell their own stories.

“When I start a workshop, I used to say to my students that I’m not there to teach them photography but to give them a tool that will allow them to tell the world, in a universal language, their desires, their dreams, their lives,” Reza explained to France 24.

It’s no secret that art can be used as a powerful advocacy tool to communicate stories, as exemplified by “Dream of Humanity.” But art can also provide a vehicle for self-development and personal expression, in addition to the numerous benefits of using art as a therapeutic technique.

As the number of refugees in the world hits a staggering 60 million, there’s a growing need for programs that enable refugees to harness this creative process and foster new channels for their voices.

Whether it’s through photography, painting, film or one of the many other mediums to express one’s creativity; art provides a platform to raise awareness and encourages refugees to realize their own potential.

We’ve rounded up seven inspiring projects that are helping to do just this.

1. The Za’atari Project – empowering refugees through extraordinary  public murals and educational art workshops

In partnership with aptART, ACTED, UNICEF, ECHO and Mercy Corps, artist Joel Artista has traveled to Za’atari refugee camp for the past three years to work with a team of Syrian refugees. The project features workshops with young children currently living in that camp that focus not only on art but educational topics. Refugee children are given the opportunity to learn about topics such as hygiene and sanitation issues in the camp and a variety of artistic techniques.

The young refugees participate in the creation of murals across the camp, paint wheelbarrows and tents and create kites. The Za’atari project’s website explains that the project also explores “conflict resolution; their hopes and dreams for the future of their country and themselves; their nostalgia for everything and everyone that they’ve lost in the war; and the importance of building.”

2. Exile Voices – training students in Kawergosk Refugee Camp through art photography

In December 2013, world renowned artist Reza traveled to a camp of Syrian refugees located in Iraqi Kurdistan and established a photography workshop for the children of the camp aged from 11 – 15.

This trip was the birth of the Exile Voices project, which has now grown into a five-year joint project with the UNHCR, and through which he is working to provide workshops for young people in refugee camps throughout the world.

The culmination of portraits Reza has taken over the past three decades, as well as images taken by the children of Kawergosk Refugee Camp will be displayed in an exhibition on the banks of the River Seine in Paris through October 15, 2015.

3. Castle Art – bringing color, energy, and hope to the walls of the refugee camp in Akré, Dohuk

The project, Castle Art was spearheaded by a small humanitarian organization called Rise Foundation.

Once a week, the foundation has helped the children of Akre by providing them with spray cans and rollers – in order to “express the emotions and creativity they might otherwise have to repress.”

“Castle Art was established in order to enhance the sense of community within the imposing and uninspiring structure that is now home to hundreds of families,” explains Rise director Tom Robinson. “It provides a unique creative outlet for these young, aspiring artists.”

4. Skoun – supporting  refugees through therapeutic art

Skoun Association‘s prevention program targets the youth in an open and non-judgmental way, involving parents, educators and health care providers in their work.

One way they aim to help refugee youth is through art therapy within schools. “We are offering them the opportunity to express themselves freely, without judgment, without evaluation of their work.” says Anita Toutikian, a Psychosocial Counselor based in Beirut.

“One can’t help but wonder what some of the young adults who have fled the war might paint given a darker palette, but that answer isn’t for today. “When they’re happy, they all become children,” says Toutikian.

5. UNHCR – transforming shelters into vibrant works of art

UNHCR invited urban refugees from across Jordan to share their messages through art.

Around two hundred refugees, young and old, male and female, were involved in painting UNHCR tents, with each one taking around three full days to paint. Refugees were encouraged to express their feelings through their painting, or to write poetry, or whatever artistic medium came to them, whilst being given broad themes of ‘Hope’, ‘Memories’ and ‘The Impact of War On Families’.

The results have been so powerful, the tents are now set to be exhibited in a number of locations across the world.

“The goal was to turn these symbols of loss and displacement into beautiful pieces of artwork, in order to raise awareness for the plight of refugees,” said Hannah Rose Thomas, who worked as a creative director for UNHCR on the project.

6. Paint Outside the Lines – providing a platform for refugee children’s voices

To encourage children to express themselves and provide a public platform for their voices a regional street art project, Paint Outside the Lines, was implemented across the Kurdistan region of Iraq in camps for both Syrian refugees and internally displaced Iraqis.

The project empowers young people with a creative outlet in their own communities, while also providing a platform for their voices in the international community through exhibitions of their original works in Brussels and Paris.

7. Artists for Refugees – giving refugees new connections and a source of livelihood

The Artists for Refugees project was a project funded by UNHCR and implemented by Film Aid to focus on the training of artists both in Kakauma and Dadaab refugee camps.

The premise of the project was to help change the perception of refugees as people who are actively and positively contributing towards the economy and host community. Artists for Refugees provides an opportunity for refugees to collaborate and express themselves using art as a source of livelihood and also a form of therapy.

“There are so many artists in the camp, but rarely are they encouraged to or get a chance to interact with artists from the host country,” says Emmanuel Nyabera, the UNHCR spokesman in Kenya.

For more information you can follow the hashtag #ArtistsForRefugees on Twitter or check out the storify behind the project.

Do you know of any great art initiatives that are helping refugees across the world? Tell us in the comments below.



We’re always looking for great stories, ideas, and opinions on innovations that are led by or create  impact for refugees. If you have one to share with us send us an email at innovation@unhcr.org

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Photo credit: Joel Artista/Za’atari Project


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