Cultural Aid to Refugees The Lost Diary

Syrian refugee children at a theatre workshop organized by Action for Hope
Syrian refugee children at a theatre workshop organized by Action for Hope | Photo: Goethe-Institut Libanon

Talking is therapeutic. No matter if the stories are expressed in film, theatre or music – they need to be told. The Goethe-Institut and the aid organization Action for Hope are therefore administering cultural first aid in the refugee camps of the Middle East. By Pepe Egger

We see a YouTube video, the images are wobbly and blurred, and hear the tired voice of a girl. “I thought I was finally safe on arriving in the village of Ersal in Lebanon. Yet suddenly my family and I were amidst a battle between ISIS and the Lebanese army. Finally we fled with our lives leaving behind all our belongings including my cherished personal diary. Now it’s gone and with it all my secrets. I have been hesitating to buy a new diary, fearing losing it again in war.” The camera then walks us into a shop and the same girl’s voice is asking, “Hello, sir, do you sell diaries?”

This video is like a message in a bottle from the war. It contains an entire life packed into a minute and a half and tells of escape, loss and, at the end, perhaps a new start. Personal Diary by Khadija Ibrahim Al-Ibrahim was made with the simplest of means, yet testifies to an impressive achievement: personal experience has become art, as brief and simple as the video may be. Personal Diary is the product of a video workshop held by the NGO Action for Hope and the Goethe-Institut in a refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

Action for Hope sees cultural work as part of humanitarian aid for refugees. To survive and move on refugees need more than room and board. They need the opportunity to relate their experiences, to come to terms with what they have gone through and give expression to both their despair and their aspirations.

Action for Hope evolved from the 2012 visit by a group of Arabic cultural professionals in the camps for Syrian refugees in Kilis, Turkey. During their encounters with the people there, the Action for Hope activists came to realize that the people need more than three meals a day and a roof over their heads. In addition to humanitarian aid, they also needed cultural aid.

Since their first visit in 2012, the artists working with Basma el-Husseiny of Egypt, who has worked closely with the Goethe-Institut for many years, returned to the camps four more times with cultural convoys. Three years later they evolved into Action for Hope with el-Husseiny as the director of the organization. In her opinion, cultural professionals are predestined for giving the refugees the needed assistance. “They are far more able to meet the needs of those dealing with hope, emotions, stories, meaning, with creativity.” Artists are experts at dealing with despair, she says, “Because they make it possible to express things, whether in poetry, pictures or films.”

The work of Action for Hope is based on the insight that the people have lost not only their possessions, but also their social fabric. “They are living in absolute uncertainty and are completely dependent upon others,” says el-Husseiny. “That is why many feel completely lost and have the feeling that no one cares about them.” This despair involves great risk. Many refugees become depressed, others lean towards violence; a situation that is taken advantage of by Islamists. “Even if the food is paid for by Norway and the tents by the UNHCR, many people in the refugee camps feel that the only ones listening to them and offering them hope are the Islamists.”