Magazine article New Internationalist

Catherine Shovlin

Magazine article New Internationalist

Catherine Shovlin

Article excerpt

At the end of a 100-kilometre drive from Amman, through barren, ochre desert, a sea of pointed white roofs glints on the horizon. Gain some ground, and 10,000 metal huts emerge from the haze. This is Azraq, an isolated refugee camp in Jordan, 90 kilometres from the Syrian border, where 35,449 refugees currently live - most having fled from war-torn Aleppo.

Venture into the heart of the camp, where homogeneous 'villages' have been built around water taps, and you will find something unexpected: some of the huts' blank exteriors have been painted in a shock of primary colours. This is the work of Artmongers, a South London-based collective on a mission to create beauty in the face of adversity. Co-directors Patricio Forrester and Catherine Shovlin first came to Azraq in 2015, having been granted access via the US humanitarian organization CARE, to assess wellbeing (with the help of some Syrian teenagers collecting data) before and after running this wall-painting project.

During her time at the camp, Shovlin - a social researcher for governments and NGOs - discovered women were at a disadvantage in terms of social connection. 'I was struck by the isolation of many women there, who for various cultural, social and emotional reasons weren't leaving their shelters,' she explains. 'Sixty per cent of women hadn't seen anybody the day before they took the survey. Cut off from friends and social connections, they sit inside their safe but uninspiring shelters just waiting for the days to go by.'

When her survey revealed that recorded wellbeing among women in the camp had improved by 40 per cent since the painting project, Shovlin devised a second programme, in the hope of sparking the kind of community support that she saw was lacking.

Fast-forward two years, and Shovlin is taking turns with five chattering Syrian women to haul a heavy speaker on a trolley along the dirt-track veins of Azraq camp. She had approached the women at the camp's community-centre sewing group with the aim of airing audio material around the camp's public spaces, starting with Hay el Matar (hayelmatar.com), a UNHCR-approved, Arabic-language radio soap opera written by and for Syrian refugees in Beirut. The drama touches on civil war, domestic violence, education and migration, through the lens of classic soap-opera tropes: love affairs, family disputes and personal conflicts. …

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