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Art becomes way to help Syrian refugees
Jean Bradbury wants to fight the “static suffering” of Syrians in a refugee camp that is now the fourth-largest city in Jordan. To give them something meaningful to do, she was collecting artwork, yarn and donations in Seattle Sunday to take with her when she returns to the camp.
Seattle Times arts writer
On Sunday morning, Seattle artist Jean Bradbury and Capitol Hill restaurant owners Wassef and Racha Haroun set up booths at the Melrose Market Street Festival to do their bit in addressing a humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Jordanian desert, eight miles from the Syrian border.
A little over a year ago, Zaatari was just a small village. Now 130,000 Syrian refugees are packed into a 3-square-mile refugee camp there, built by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
That makes Zaatari Refugee Camp the fourth-largest city in Jordan. According to the BBC, 2,000 more people arrive there every day, as families stream over the border to escape the violence in Syria.
It’s a situation so daunting that when Bradbury asked friends in Jordan what she could do to help, she was told, “There’s nothing you can do. It’s just a horrible, horrible situation. You can’t stop the war. You can’t stop the violence.”
In an interview last week, Bradbury said, “I just couldn’t take that as a final answer. I just decided to do something, even if it was tiny. And the thing I know how to do is to teach art.”
She made her first visit to the camp in March. After raising $1,000 from friends and family, she bought art supplies in Amman, Jordan’s capital, and brought them to the camp. There she taught art classes to young mothers, teenage girls and youngsters.
Bradbury, originally from Canada, has lived in Seattle for 20 years. (Seattleites may know her fanciful murals that adorn the walls of the Macrina Bakery in Sodo and Belltown.) She first visited Jordan in 1989 as an archaeological illustrator on an excavation there.
“I got to know the people and the country a little bit,” she says, “and fell in love with the place — and the warm weather.”
The dig was near the village of Safi in the Jordan Valley, and locals — all men — were hired to help with it. Bradbury didn’t meet the women of the village until a few years later, when they invited her to help them design handicrafts they could sell to tourists.
On recent visits to Safi, she noticed a change. There had always been itinerant Syrian farmworkers passing through, but their numbers rose sharply, as more and more Syrians fled their country.
“Of course I’m aware of what’s going on in Syria,” Bradbury says. “I couldn’t help but reach out.”
Her idea was simply to offer art supplies to Save the Children Jordan. But the organization invited her to go to the camp and teach.
“It was incredibly moving, as you can imagine,” she says, “so I decided to do it again and go back.”
In September, she’ll spend 2½ weeks in Jordan, both at Safi and at the camp.
At her booth at the street festival, Bradbury was encouraging children and adults to draw fanciful portraits of themselves with their arms extended outward.
“We’ll cut them out, attach them into a long chain of paper dolls,” she explained. She plans to have the kids in the camp do the same thing and link their paper dolls with those from Seattle. Then she’ll photograph the kids in the camp holding them up.
“Mostly, I just want to give the kids something fun and creative to do.”
Next to her booth, the Harouns’ Mamnoon Restaurant was selling T-shirts, wristbands and “glassybabies” (handmade glass candleholders) to raise funds for UNHCR to help Syrian refugees.
Wassef calls the UNHCR “a very effective organization,” and Bradbury confirms that. One message that camp residents asked her to spread, she says, is that the camp isn’t the disaster portrayed in the media.
“There is enough food in the camp and conditions are better than I expected,” she wrote on her website (www.jeanbradbury.com) earlier this year.
That’s not to understate the trauma the refugees have undergone: “When I asked a staff member how many of the people at the camp had experienced the death of someone close to them, she said simply, ‘Everyone. Every one of them.’ ”
The sheer scale of the camp (it’s twice the size of Wallingford in area, and its population is greater than Bellevue’s) can be overwhelming.
“It’s massive,” Bradbury says. “When I was there in March, I was working with the women from Save the Children who were in charge of pregnant women and infant nutrition. They were connecting with as many pregnant women as possible. ... They told me that it took them half an hour just to walk to somebody’s tent.”
David Remnick, in a recent New Yorker article on Zaatari, described refugee camps as places of “dependency, bureaucracy and static suffering.” It’s that “static suffering” that Bradbury, in her small way, is trying to combat — not just through art-making, but through knitting. Sunday’s event included a yarn drive, which had direct origins in Bradbury’s spring visit.
While at Zaatari, she met a little girl who liked to crochet: “I admired something she was wearing, and she said she didn’t have any wool to crochet with.”
When Bradbury brought her some balls of yarn the next day, it created an awkward situation. “A whole bunch of people started coming up to us, asking for yarn, which surprised me.”
On her September trip, she’ll be bringing donated yarn with her, and she plans to collaborate with a friend in Amman in setting up a knitting club there.
“People want something to do and some creative outlet — a way to express themselves, something to make. Quite apart from the fact that they do actually need warm clothing,” she says, “they want the dignity of doing something for themselves.”
Asked if she thinks she’ll be returning after that, she says, “Sadly, yes. At first we all hoped that it might not last very long. But it’s clearly going to be a long-term project.”
Donations to her project can be made at www.studiosyria.org.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com