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Open-air art display in D.C. meant to show plight of Syria’s refugees

Michala Jimmis walks by "Peace and Hope," a 1760 foot long canvas created by Syrian refugee children in the Zaataru Refugee Camp in Jordan, on display in Washington, DC, October 23, 2014, as volunteers try to secure it in the wind.
Michala Jimmis walks by "Peace and Hope," a 1760 foot long canvas created by Syrian refugee children in the Zaataru Refugee Camp in Jordan, on display in Washington, DC, October 23, 2014, as volunteers try to secure it in the wind. McClatchy

The bombs look like root-beer barrels, falling from the sky toward unsuspecting stick figures. A tent labeled “UN” is ablaze, with orange scribbles for flames. There are remembered houses and tiny handprints, as well as a heart, cleaved in two, dripping cartoon blood.

These colorful, crudely drawn renderings are the handiwork of Syrian refugee children who now live in the city-sized Zaatari camp in Jordan. A 1,700-foot mural of their work went on display Thursday on the National Mall in Washington; thousands of runners will pass the installation this weekend at Mile 19 on the route for the Marine Corps Marathon.

Organizers said the “Peace and Hope” mural – with themes of despair, loss of innocence and, still, joy – stood as a reminder of the war’s human toll: around 3 million refugees, half of them children who are now referred to as “the lost generation.” Much to the frustration of humanitarian activists, the refugee plight has been overshadowed by the emergence of the Islamic State extremist group and U.S.-led efforts to dismantle it.

“It’s dominating American media, and there’s so much fear around the donor community about supporting programming in Syria now because they don’t know where it’s going. It’s the kids that lose,” said Hazami Barmada, the Syrian-American management consultant and humanitarian worker who discovered the artwork during a trip to Jordan and led a grass-roots campaign to bring it to Washington.

“If you fear ISIS now,” Barmada warned, using an Islamic State acronym, “wait till you see children who’ve seen no promise, no optimism, no investment in their future. The risk of not investing now is worse than the risk of investing.”

Barmada stumbled upon the canvases by accident, during a trip to Jordan to film a music video in Zaatari, perhaps the best known of the myriad camps and enclaves that have sprung up in neighboring countries to accommodate the exodus from Syria’s civil war. She was visiting a popular Syrian actor, Nawar Bulbul, himself a refugee, who’d created a drama program that teaches Shakespeare to kids in Zaatari.

Barmada spotted some drawings in a corner; more were stuffed in a drawer. Bulbul told her the drawings were by about 1,000 of the camp’s children, who have few resources or outlets to address the severe trauma they’ve experienced in three years of war and displacement.

Barmada said she unfurled the canvases and was struck by the range of emotions, but especially the resilience, expressed in the children’s paintings. She told herself that they weren’t going back in the drawer.

Barmada recalled her ensuing conversation with Bulbul:

“Can I have it?”

“Are you crazy? Do you know how big it is?”

“I don’t care. I have a dream.”

“What?”

“I’m going to put it on the National Mall.”

Bulbul’s consent was the easy part – next came the logistics of shipping a 500-pound installation from Amman, Jordan, to Washington, not to mention winning the permits required for such an exhibition on Washington green space that stretches between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol.

Barmada used her personal funds as seed money and sent out fundraising messages on Facebook and across her extensive corporate and activist networks. She joined forces with fellow Syrian-American activist Omar al Chaar, who runs the nonprofit Beats, Rhymes and Relief.

Even without seeing the artwork, Barmada said, donors responded emotionally to the project. Aramex, the logistics company, shipped the canvases for free to Barmada’s doorstep; they languished in her basement as she recruited support for the project.

The permits turned out to be fairly easy to obtain. Then a church group in Washington donated space so the canvases could be treated to withstand the outdoors. Barmada said the Home Depot representative who was presented with the project’s long shopping list turned out to be a Congolese refugee. Sympathetic, he arranged for a donation of $1,000 in supplies.

Though Barmada is proud that the project is grass roots, she said it was imperative to get the attention of the United Nations, the State Department and other official bodies working on the Syrian crisis.

Anne Richard, the State Department assistant secretary who oversees refugee affairs, and Daniel Rubenstein, the special envoy for Syria, agreed immediately to speak at the ribbon-cutting. The U.N. refugee agency gave the project $7,000 just this week, Barmada said.

Early Thursday, Barmada stood among the volunteers who were hanging the canvases, strip by strip, in an enormous square in the heart of the mall. She reminded herself aloud to take a photo of a sketch of some balloons so the little girl who drew them could see her work displayed in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.

Schoolchildren ambled past, gazing at the sketches. Tourists snapping photos of the Washington Monument turned their lenses on the Syrian artwork. Some middle-school students took selfies and were asked to post them online under the #RestoreHappy tag, part of an awareness campaign for Syrian refugee children.

By now, Barmada is familiar with every panel of the massive installation, yet there are still moments when a drawing will strike her anew. She pointed out the somber war scenes interspersed with the more childlike drawings of houses, flowers, castles and princesses.

“There are some that are very dark and some that are happy,” she said. “I wanted to not filter them. These are their emotions.”

She started to add to that thought, but her voice caught. She stopped, took a breath and wiped away tears.

“Man, it hits home,” she said.

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