World News

Refugees use art to make Zaatari Refugee Camp home

Sitting alone outside a ramshackle caravan in Jordan's Zaatari Refugee Camp, Mohamed Jokhadar sips coffee from a stained cup and reflects.

Posted Updated

Zeena Saifi (CNN)

Sitting alone outside a ramshackle caravan in Jordan's Zaatari Refugee Camp, Mohamed Jokhadar sips coffee from a stained cup and reflects.

Jokhadar is a Syrian refugee who, like so many refugees around the world, was violently torn from the life he once knew by civil war. Living in a refugee camp, he had to face reality. "I came to the realization that I'm here and I'm not leaving," he says.

Amid the canvas tents, temporary buildings and lost hope, Jokhadar chose to embrace his new life and seize opportunities within the camp.

Today, he not only owns a barber shop, but operates as an artist who chronicles the horrors unfolding in his homeland.

Refugee crisis

The Zaatari Refugee Camp, in Mafraq Governorate, opened in 2012 to host Syrians, like Jokhadar, fleeing military conflict in their country. Today, it is home to approximately 80,000 Syrian refugees, according to the UNHCR.

There are 68.5 million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced, according to the UNHCR, and the increasing number of refugees, internally displaced people and asylum-seekers is mainly being driven by the war in Syria, the body said in 2014.

The Zaatari Refugee Camp, however, is no longer the desolate, foreboding place it once was. In just six years, it has been transformed from a barren tract of land into a bustling metropolis, thanks to its inhabitants' talent, zeal and determination to build a real community.

Tough choices

Jokhadar, aged 32, and his family were forced to leave their home in the city of Homs, in 2012, after extreme shelling overtook the city.

At first, they moved within Syria. "We thought we'd stay in an area close to the Syrian border until the situation in Homs got calmer," he says. But it never did.

In January 2013, Jokhadar entered the Zaatari Camp on foot with his wife and nine-month-old daughter. He was accompanied by his elderly parents, his brother and sister-in-law, and their three children. Two years later, Jokhadar's wife gave birth to a son inside the camp.

"I knew living in a refugee camp would be hard," he says. "But you reach a point where you need to choose between a hard life or, God forbid, losing a member of your family."

A change in style

In Syria, Jokhadar had worked in the family construction business, but his passion was always art. In fifth grade, his art teacher had encouraged him to embrace his creative side. "She told me I was destined to become a painter," he says.

Jokhadar began painting at his home in Homs for hours every day; sometimes from dusk until dawn. His paintings were filled with rich colors, and his specialty was portraits of beautiful, hopeful faces.

Now as a refugee, Jokhadar has sought self-expression and solace through his art -- although he says the war has affected his style and his color palette.

"I began wanting to say something through my art, to send a message," he says. "I was living a hard life and I wanted to illustrate it through my paintings."

In the camp, Jokhadar began volunteering as an art teacher at one of the schools. However, to make a living, he bought a barber shop the day after he entered the Zaatari Camp. He works there every afternoon, but is always happiest with a paintbrush in his hand.

While Jokhadar's staff look after customers, he paints in a corner of the shop. Customers are often intrigued by his activity, and many have asked if they can join him in his art corner.

Now, when he's not trimming someone's beard, he is teaching another refugee the basics of art.

Against all odds

Jokhadar is not the only refugee bringing creativity into the Zaatari Camp. Safwan Harb, for example, is a 28-year-old refugee from Daraa, south-west Syria, who entered the Zaatari Camp in 2013.

As a child, he was diagnosed with polio and lost control of his lower limbs, but that hasn't stopped him from seizing opportunities in the camp.

In 2014, Harb and his brother founded the Syrian Art Group, which currently consists of 30 members, who organize plays and train others how to act, produce and write scripts. The group has performed on several occasions around the camp.

"The Syrian Art Group is like a family to me," Harb says. "It allowed us all to discover our passions and build a long-lasting support network."

Paul Fean is the Norwegian Refugee Council's (NRC) acting youth specialist in Jordan, who works to help young refugees gain skills and build relationships.

He says Harb and Jokhadar are representative of the entrepreneurial, creative spirit found in refugee camps.

"In my experience working with refugees," Fean says, "I've found a strong motivation, interest and desire to make a better future for themselves, their families and their communities."

He says one camp he's worked in gained electricity because of refugees who taught themselves how to weld. Communities within another camp were able to become mobile, because refugees rehabilitated old bicycles and distributed them around the camp.

"Refugees have a lot of skill and potential that they can draw on," Fean says. "They just need opportunities and our support."

Copyright 2023 by Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.