We know the power of making, but we’ve never applied it in such extreme circumstances

a view of a carved artwork in the window.
Tarek has carved his life story into the handle of a broom – it depicts his life from the cradle to how he came to Zaatari – he has saved the last few inches for his future, as it becomes known to him.
On display at ‘Carving Time’, Image by James Bryant

Since January 2019, Professor Helen Storey has been working with the UNHCR as ‘Artist in Residence’ at Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan. With a variation of projects successfully exchanging knowledge and empowering those in the camp through making. Helen’s work has enabled multiple developments including ‘Carving Time’ an exhibition in London of work by artist Tarek from Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan – on until 31 January 2020.

Reflecting on the year Helen notes the lack of differentiation between personal and professional life throughout, it seems to “have become one and the same – some people would deem that unhealthy.” Helen continues, “but it also seems to be, what is being asked of us individually and collectively in any case under the lens of the climate emergency… We are living in a necessary chaotic and messy period, what I’ve learnt most vividly in the last year, is that engaging with the complexity and uncertainty is a sign you’re working with the future, and if you feel like you’re in a familiar space, trying to keep the now all under control – you’re dealing with and hanging on to our past.”

With the blur of personal and professional lives occurring more and more due to technology, it was interesting to hear how this translates in Za’atari via the relationship refugees have with Facebook, used often as a means of staying in contact with relatives that remain in Syria, or are in camp in Jordan. Whilst publicising ‘Carving Time’ an exhibition in London – the team at CSF were pleased to see Tarek’s own personal interaction with posts via Facebook from Za’atari, Helen adds “it suddenly makes worlds that are very far part, seem much closer.”

An image of Za'atari refugee camp with blue skies
Za’atari Refugee Camp – Image: Anna Fitzpatrick

We revisited the blogs written throughout the past year, with one written by Project Coordinator Anna Fitzpatrick, after returning from Za’atari – where she mentions the need for self-reliance of those living in Za’atari.

The need for self-reliance of those living in Za’atari is something Helen’s work has responded to with great success…

“In a way the need to become self-reliant, and the way that we can collaborate and co create with people in the camp has happened simultaneously. It’s less about ‘aid’ and more about development –  for the last 8 years, the naturally entrepreneurial Syrians have had to be totally dependent on NGO support, particularly with the women I’ve been working with, changing the mindset of dependency to one of ‘ this is yours, grow it as you will ‘ has been significant.

There’s power in making

In terms of the contribution London College of Fashion and Centre for Sustainable Fashion can make there’s some natural synergies there Helen adds – “we know the power of making but we’ve never applied it in such extreme circumstances. “

“The only times I feel equal and not separated by privilege, is in the process when we’re actually making things with our hands… what you’re doing in that very moment becomes the most powerful thing, something is shared, neither of the past, or a projected future ”

So, what’s next for Helen?

The legacy of Helen’s 2019 Artist in Residency will live on through the work and relationships formed – many of the projects created this year – have become sustainable in their own right. A great example is the early work on a ‘Beauty Co-op’, an accredited LCF short course in beauty, which culminated ( along with other skills) in the creation of the first Centre for female empowerment & creativity launched on International Women’s Day this March – this ‘ MADE IN ZAATARI’ centre now enables knowledge to be passed onto others in the camp and the striving for economic independence to continue.

And Za’atari’s view on the climate emergency?

“human trust, quite rightly, always takes time to build up, but, over time it allows you to be more ambitious about what we can collectively strive for. We’ve been having some interesting conversations about the climate emergency, on the one hand it seems deeply inappropriate to be having a conversation like that in Zaatari, but the people of Zaatari have much to teach us about what resilience really means – this is as valuable for us, as it is that we develop work with them that aims to better their lives directly now.”

These are the experiences that make you question the purpose of your life.”

Helen’s words after her first trip to Za’atari, were those above, reflecting on this…”I think when I first articulated that, it was before the heightened cry of our climate emergency (or prior to it being made as vivid as it is now) and I think this kind of questioning is happening all over. One of the things I’ve come into contact with, travelling between the college and the camp this year, are the conversations I have with people I bump into… we are at a moment where the threat to everybody is the same, we are being rendered equal, in the way often only a crisis will do and everyone is responding to it in different ways – one of those ways I have noticed is people’s need to find greater meaning in what they do in their own everyday lives.