All artworks created by Syrian refugees aged 12-18 in the Za’atari camp in Jordan (all images courtesy of UNICEF)


This is the first in a series co-produced by Syria Deeply and Hyperallergic, investigating the visual and cultural responses to the crisis in Syria.

Among the many disquieting truths that appear in the sprawling report from the Za’atari refugee camp recently penned by the New Yorker’s David Remnick, an exchange with a UNICEF official Dominique Hyde about the nature of children’s artwork there was particularly affecting. Hyde tells Remnick, “You look at their drawings: blood, weapons, corpses. I have an eleven-year-old and a three-year-old, and I never see them make drawings like that.”

“Art is an important form of self-expression and for many children in Za’atari an outlet to express the horrors they have witnessed.”

With a growing population currently pegged at 130,000, Za’atari is a Jordanian refugee camp across the border from Syria that has quickly become synonymous with the rapidly escalating refugee situation emerging from the Syrian crisis. And the significant numbers of children streaming into the camp have made scholastic under-enrollment emerge as a major issue.

Hyperallergic recently spoke with UNICEF Jordan’s Deputy Representative Michele Servadei to delve into the question of child-focused programming at Za’atari, both in the arts and education more generally. Accompanying his answers below are photographs of artworks produced by Syrian children aged 12–18 at the camp, and they appear here for the first time.

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Mostafa Heddaya: What are the greatest challenges currently facing the educational efforts at Za’atari? What percentage of school-age children would you estimate are enrolled in educational programs?

Michele Servadei: Currently UNICEF runs three schools in Za’atari with space for 15,000 students from grades one through 12. There are approximately 30,000 school aged children in Za’atari, so only about half of the school aged children in the camp can currently attend formal school.

Another challenge is that many Syrian children have missed a significant amount of schooling due to the conflict and displacement.

To address this UNICEF and partner organizations run catch up and remedial classes in Za’atari to support children who have had to miss school. UNICEF is also appealing for additional funds to support its education programs in the camp to ensure all children are in school.

Getting Syrian children back to school is critical as school is a safe environment and helps restore some level of normalcy to children’s lives.

MH: What is the structure of the educational programs or schools at Za’atari? Are they operated by UNICEF and/or with assistance from the Jordanian authorities? How are teachers recruited, who sets curricula, and so on?

MS: UNICEF in partnership with the Jordanian Ministry of Education manage the three schools in Za’atari camp. Children are taught the Jordanian curriculum and will receive Jordanian education certificates. Schools are run in two shifts – the morning shift for girls and the afternoon shift for boys. Each class has a Jordanian teacher and Syrian assistant teacher. Jordanian teachers are recruited through the Ministry of Education’s regular recruitment processes and Syrian teachers are from within the Za’atari community.

MH: In what context are children encouraged to draw or participate in producing visual art? Is it part of formal classroom instruction or is it set up as a supervised or unsupervised extracurricular activity? Who provides the art supplies, and have you been able to work with any individuals or organizations to have these or any school supplies donated?

MS: As well as providing formal schooling in Za’atari, UNICEF and its partners provide “safe spaces” for adolescents, youth and children. Currently UNICEF and partners operate 35 Child Friendly Spaces, 5 Adolescent Safe Spaces and 3 Youth Friendly Spaces which have reached 58,000 children in the Za’atari refugee camp with psycho social support since January 2013.

These spaces are safe places where children can socialize, learn, play and receive psycho social support to help deal with the emotional distress of living through conflict and displacement.

Children and adolescents participate in organized activities at these safe spaces including a number of different art forms such as drawing, painting, theatre, sculpting and others.

UNICEF and partners also organize children to deliver health and education messages creatively throughout Za’atari camp through the “Talking Walls” project. Groups of young people create messages and paint them artistically in common spaces throughout the camp like communal kitchens and/or latrine and shower blocks.

UNICEF provides art supplies through funds donated by our generous donors.

MH: In your experience, are the drawings produced by the children overwhelmingly shocking in terms of what they choose to depict, or is it a broad range of subject matter? Do you find that many children are compelled to depict the atrocities they have witnessed?

MS: With the conflict in Syria now in its third year children have seen and been exposed to horrible atrocities. Art is an important form of self-expression and for many children in Za’atari an outlet to express the horrors they have witnessed.

Yes, we see artwork by children that is highly politicized and depict awful scenes of conflict and death. Things no child should ever have to witness. We also see artwork from children who have gone through UNICEF’s psycho social support programs that depict scenes of peace and hopefulness.

MH: It’s difficult to think about the arts in the face of the enormity of the crisis, but what role do you think the arts in general (both in visual art or music) could play in helping children cope with life as refugees? Is this something that’s prioritized, or are other more basic concerns, like building secure school facilities, ensuring enrollment, and finding teachers taking exclusive precedence?

MS: Participation in various art forms is an important way for children to express themselves. This is particularly true for children who have witnessed horrific levels of violence like many of the Syrian children living in Za’atari.

We believe that addressing the long term emotional scars of living through years of conflict with psycho social support is critical and life-saving for children. Giving children an outlet to express their feelings, including through art, is an important part of doing this work.


UNICEF has organized child-painted murals with general welfare messages; this one reads “Let’s go and register for school”

A child-painted mural organized by UNICEF; this one reads: “Wash your hands with soap and water”

Knowledge is Light

A child-painted mural organized by UNICEF; this one reads: “Knowledge is light”

A child-painted mural organized by UNICEF; this one reads: “Each child has the right to education”


Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

One reply on “How Art Is Helping Children in One Syrian Refugee Camp”

  1. Really love this article; it gives such insight into the well-being of Syria’s children refugees. Thanks for sharing!

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