Creative arts help the poor
In 2000, the second intifada erupted in West Bank and The Gaza Strip. The conflict resulted in 4,300 fatalities over the course of five years. Located in the heart of the conflict, Palestinian refugees residing in Aida Camp were subjected to frequent military attacks and their 
inexpensively built houses were exposed to land and air raids.

Israeli forces occupied their houses and commandeered their camp for military purposes all while schools were destroyed and roads were severely damaged. In the midst of this chaos, 11 young refugees of the Aida Camp assembled a group where creative arts help the poor in Palestine.

Starting The Lajee Center

Within the year, these creative members secured a 70 square meter garage for their place of operation. Their goal was to create a space in which Palestinians could creatively address their enduring struggle to secure their rights. They called this space The Lajee Center, a place where the creative arts help the poor on a daily basis.

Today, The Lajee Center is a cultural center that provides “refugee youth with cultural, educational, social and developmental opportunities.”  It services not only the roughly 39 percent of Aida Camp residents living on less than $2 a day but is also open to all Palestinians.

According to the organization’s website, “activities are organized with the goal of fostering in participants a wider understanding of the world in which they live, focusing on issues relating specifically to their own society, culture and history, as well as the global context.”

Lajee Center Programs

The programs of Lajee Center reflect the increasing reliance on the creative arts in order to address situations of extreme poverty. In fact, UNESCO has launched several initiatives in which the creative arts help the poor in various impoverished communities.

The organization recognizes that publishing, music, cinema, crafts and design play a role in allowing for freedom of expression, cultural diversity and economic development. The group also recognizes that the arts have the ability to address emerging inequalities that have resulted from the development of new technologies and international trade.

A Therapeutic Escape

The therapeutic benefits of creative outlets are well-known — children in the camp are guided in arts and crafts in which they are encouraged to visually express their greatest aspirations. Some partake in weekly dance lessons in the traditional Palestinian folk dance while others participate in the camp’s choral group or individual music lessons. The children report that the music not only connects them to their history but it also provides them with welcomed escapes from their harsh surroundings.

Perhaps, most importantly, the creative arts are a source of identity formation. The residents of the Aida Camp continue to be subjected to military violence as a result of the Israeli occupation. Members of the dance troupe have been injured and detained while others have been banned from travel.

Healing Powers of Art

A group of 50 was once detained in a building without ventilation and then targeted with tear gas grenades; however, the troupe has continued dancing because they value how dance is a part of their identity. It instills them with a sense of belonging and strengthens their claim as a distinct people deserving of basic human rights.  

The Lajee Center has earned international acclaim for its many artistic endeavors. The Lajee’s Center’s Palestinian folk dance troupe has performed not only around West Bank but has also toured to both The U.K. and Syria on several occasions. The organization has also participated in two cultural tours around The U.K. which exposed members’ photography, film and dance to over 3,000 members of the British public.

Global Renown

Furthermore, Lajee Center has organized 30 international photography exhibits showcasing the work of the camp’s youth. These exhibits took place in 9 different countries covering 4 different continents. In addition, 4 books written by Aida camps residents have been published internationally in both Arabic and English.

When attempting to find solutions to cases of extreme poverty in the world, it is easy to focus on economic barriers, access to education and lack of basic utilities.

Humanitarian Aid

Humanitarian groups readily assist in building wells, providing new agricultural technology and renovating schools. In all the frenzy, the cultural and artistic components are oftentimes overlooked; however, in order to most effectively implement these developmental measures, it is essential to understand the daily lives and beliefs of the people’s expected to adopt these new measures.

It is essential to address not only physical needs but also the emotional ones. Recognizing this importance, the Lajee Center has put culture and the arts at the heart of its grassroots humanitarian efforts and recognizes how creative arts help the poor in ways that traditional relief efforts cannot.

Joanna Dooley
Photo: Flickr

ai weiweiAi Weiwei, perhaps the most important artist alive, has found an interesting topic of study over the past couple of years: the global refugee crisis. Ai’s work has always had a social bend. He has shown his disdain and criticism of the Chinese government, particularly after the Sichuan earthquake, in many of his previous art pieces. In fact, his political activism even landing him in jail for 81 days.

Ai Weiwei: Inspiring with Art

In recent years, however, he has been working outside China in either a subterranean studio in Berlin or working in New York with the Public Art Fund. Ai Weiwei and the refugee crisis are hardly a surprising pair. Though he is veering away from the domestic politics that prompted many of his earlier works, tackling the global refugee crisis, nonetheless, inspires the same poignant and emotionally resonant works for which Ai has become internationally celebrated.

Ai’s art is certainly deserving of its reputation. “Remembering,” perhaps one of his most famous projects, was a massive art piece created in response to the Sichuan earthquake. Ai lined up thousands of backpacks along the Haus der Kunst in Munich. Each backpack represented a child who was lost in the earthquake. In addition, the backpacks spelled out a sentence written by one of the victim’s mother: “All I want is to let the world remember she had been living happily for seven years.”

The sensitivity Ai showed in focusing on the tragedy of a large number of people while highlighting the individual—in that case, the child’s mother—is how he has been able to approach the global refugee crisis. It is also that level of sensation, that which marked “Remembering” as an art piece, that should keep Ai Weiwei and the refugee crisis in the headlines.

Ai Weiwei and the Refugee Crisis

Ai Weiwei has responded to the crisis with several art projects and a documentary film, “Human Flow,” now available for streaming on Amazon. The documentary, as well as the project of combatting the refugee crisis, is ambitious. It is grand. It is wide in scope.

The film opens with an aerial shot of the sea. A refugee reception is soon underway as refugees come ashore from their boat on that sea. The image, the tiny heads adrift surrounded by impossibly small waves, conveys the immeasurability of the scene. Yet, as the film progresses, faces are visible, close-up. And, for a moment in this opening see, the audience sees the director.

The film isn’t just about the refugee crisis; it is about the international figure Ai Weiwei and the refugee crisis. He, the director, appears in many crucial scenes throughout the film. It is his documentary and his exploration of the crisis. Yet, his image is used sparingly. The audience sees him react to people organically; they see his emotional reactions, but the focus is always on the other people—the refugees.

The documentary spans several countries and jumps from location to location; not creating a story, but an especially moving tapestry of lives woven together by the different crises they experience. Close-ups highlight the individual while aerial shots from drone cameras create a sense of scale.

Ai Weiwei’s New York Art Project

As part of his work for New York’s Public Art Fund, with proceeds also going to the IRC and the UNHCR, Ai Weiwei used portraits of 300 of the refugees he encountered doing research and creating the documentary to create banners on display around the city. The banners are part of his “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” exhibition, in which the artist also created several fence or cage installations around New York City as a commentary on the tendencies to not treat refugees with the respect and humanity they deserve.

Moreover, the images of individuals, used as part of a massive and publicly accessible art projects deal, are a testament to the massive scale of the crisis, and yet they imbue the subject, the refugee, with individuality and emotional resonance. These pieces are guaranteed to be seen when walking around New York.

The documentary and his other art projects serve to create and propagate awareness. It is not just an awareness of the refugee crisis, but of the otherwise unseen humans who are affected by the crisis. It is the emotion behind the art of Ai Weiwei and the refugee crisis itself that needs to be shared. And a readily streamable documentary along with a strong public art project serve as excellent ways of spreading awareness. His work can be seen as a call for action to address the needs of the global poor and the world’s refugees.

Ai Weiwei is far from finished making a statment on the refugee crisis. His next project, entitled “Laundromat,” will be in Qatar. The artist uses 2,046 articles of clothing left behind by refugees when fleeing the Greek island of Lesbos. In an email interview about this new project with the New York Times, Ai asserts this call for action, noting “We cannot reject the idea that humanity is one.”

William Wilcox

Photo: Flickr

inspiring actionAn inspiring action is something one thinks of when seeing a good deed done. For some photojournalists, their profession is intended to do just that. In taking thought-provoking, sometimes hard to look at, photos of a war-ravaged country or a starving child, photojournalists are inspiring action through their work for the betterment of the people in the photos.

The Inspiring Actions of Photo Journalists

Living on a Dollar a Day: The Lives and Faces of the World’s Poor by author Thomas A. Nazario is a book that features photography by Pulitzer Prize-winner Renee Byer. The photographs capture the lives and struggles of people from 10 different countries living in poverty on less than a dollar a day. Byer worked as a photojournalist for the Sacramento Bee for many years before becoming a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer.

Inspired by the reaction of people viewing her photos for Living on a Dollar a Day before the book and exhibit were published, Byer created the Youbridge-it app. The app allows viewers of her photographs to donate to specific poverty-related causes as soon as they see the people in the photos and are inspired to help.

For Example, Intrahealth International is one of the foundations that viewers can donate to specifically through the Youbridge-it app. This organization provides treatment for women with obstetric fistula in Mali, which accounts for six percent of all maternal deaths every year and is preventable. With the Youbridge-it app, people can simply pull up the app at the exhibit or when looking through the book and donate.

Aside from helping women across the globe with her photography, Byer is “…asking people to imagine that reality as their reality.” Byer believes people are desensitized to photographs of people suffering, another reason why the app is so important and effective.

Her belief in the power of photography has served as a catalyst for change. It happens in real time, as people feel empathy while viewing the pictures; they can donate immediately on the app. Connections like these are essential to inspiring action that creates change by means of photojournalism.

The Dangers and Sacrifices of Photo Journalists

Not only are photojournalists opening doors to the ills of the world but they also often risk their lives in taking these photos. Chief photographer for Agence France-Presse in Kabul Shah Marai was killed in a suicide bombing in April of this year on the job. Marai had been documenting the war and lives devastated by corrupt government rule in Afghanistan since 1998. Over the course of 20 years, 18,000 photos taken by Marai had been published, educating the world on the horrors and realities of people living in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

In countries where media is controlled by corrupt governments, photojournalism speaks truths that inspire those globally to step in. Though Marai and other photojournalists are not necessarily directly linked to any charity organizations, their photos are inspiring action among those that are more fortunate.

Neither charity organizations nor the media would be quite as effective without the photographs of the truth to go along with them. As Byer said, putting oneself in a suffering person’s shoes inspires empathy, and that empathy is what creates change.

There are millions of suffering people in the world, and photojournalists are connecting the gap between us and them. The continued innovation of apps like Youbridge-it and the bravery of the photojournalists behind such projects will help people living in poverty around the world by inspiring action from the more fortunate.

Hope Kelly
Photo: Flickr

31 bitsCurrently, 80 percent of the world population lives on less than $10 a day. Needless to say, this is a time where the global poverty rate, although at the lowest it has ever been, is still in desperate need of improvement. The estimated unemployment rate as of 2017 was 7.9 percent, a 0.4 percent increase from 2016.

Fortunately, there are organizations and companies such as 31 Bits that are striving to combat the current unemployment dilemma that is actively contributing to global poverty. Starting its journey selling jewelry at local school events and craft fairs, nearly a decade later, 31 Bits is a thriving company composed of strong women whose success has been driven by their desire to help struggling and poor artisans in providing them with dignified job opportunities all throughout the world.

How 31 Bits Came to Be

The young women who started 31 Bits were college students by day while learning about marketing and international development at night. They had no background in business whatsoever; however, they did not allow this obstacle to hinder them. After returning from a life-changing trip to Uganda in college, International Director and Founder Kallie Dovel met many women, most who were single moms without jobs or an education that were the same age as herself.

Although they lacked an education, Kallie was instantly drawn to their exceptional skills and resourcefulness; they were making jewelry out of old posters. Bringing a box of jewelry back home, she was able to sell all that she had to her friends with ease.

Kallie was hit with the realization that with the skills that these women possessed, they needed a market – this is how 31 Bits has come to flourish. Producing products that are thoughtfully designed and ethically made, the mission statement of 31 Bits is, “We use fashion and design to drive positive change in the world by providing artisans with dignified opportunities and inspiring customers to live meaningful lives.”

How 31 Bits is Carrying Out its Mission

Actively defying cruel sweatshops where the worker is not paid fairly and is treated poorly, 31 Bits puts the treatment of its artisans at the forefront. The workshops contain quality materials and the necessary protective supplies, and the organization’s goal is to ensure that each artisan is able to make a sustainable monthly salary so that they are able to provide for their families.

31 Bits sells jewelry, bags, home décor, ceramics, textiles and more. Its brass jewelry is crafted by hand in Bali and its beads are also handmade in Uganda. Its website explains the religious reasoning behind the name 31 Bits, saying, “We called the company 31 Bits because Proverbs 31 describes a diligent woman providing and caring for her family using her gifts and talents. Oh, and the ‘bits’ comes from our original and bestselling jewelry that uses beads made out of ‘bits’ of paper!”

Combating Poverty and Assisting Artists

Because 31 Bits recognizes that there are many countries that suffer from corruption and a poor infrastructure which, as a result, limits many from access to the global market, it works to actively decrease the poverty rate for these countries while sustaining a family atmosphere and preserving tradition. “We’ve been able to take age-old practices and give them a modern twist,” the company explains. “Through 31 Bits, [artisans] now have a place to sell their meaningful work and tell stories of their heritage.”

Artisans who work with 31 Bits also receive health care and treatment, counseling, financial education and more. 31 Bits is not only combating the vast amount of global poverty that millions are attempting to grapple with, it is also promoting and encouraging these artisans to pursue their dreams.

– Angelina Gillispie
Photo: Flickr

Art Therapy for Syrian Refugees
Non-governmental organizations around the world have been using art therapy for Syrian refugees as a way to deal with trauma.

One of the non-governmental organizations using art therapy for Syrian refugees is Global Humanitaria, based in Spain. According to HuffPost, the organization has partnered with Bader Medical Center in Jordan to help Syrian refugees create artwork. These art pieces will be displayed in Madrid and Barcelona and sold online. The proceeds from these will support the artists.

More than the monetary value, art therapy helps Syrian refugees express the horrors that they have experienced in Syria. According to Al Jazeera, many of the Syrian children are too young to verbalize what they went through. Others are too traumatized to talk about the things that they have seen. Art therapy for Syrian refugees gives children a nonverbal way to work through their thoughts.

Many Syrian children draw things that they have witnessed. These things often include bombs, severed limbs and tanks. Other children draw happier pictures to signify a happier outlook.

Art therapy for Syrian refugees also gives the refugee children an opportunity to talk about their trauma on their own terms. According to Al Jazeera, Syrian children often become belligerent or withdrawn when asked about the situations that they have faced. Art helps them process these experiences.

Syrian refugees experience many of difficulties beyond escaping from the country. Several of the children at the Bader Medical Center have lost limbs, for example. Others must deal with a lack of education, employment and permanent housing.

In spite of the benefits of art therapy for Syrian refugees, there is not much of funding for it. Al Jazeera discusses how little non-governmental organizations receive for art therapy. A lack of funds leads to not having enough patient time to make a long-lasting improvement.

This being said, even short-term art therapy for Syrian refugees has had a positive influence on the refugees exposed to it.

Cortney Rowe

Photo: Flickr

Documentaries About Poverty
Streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu can be a means to unproductive and endless binge-watching. However, they can also be an instrument of political and social change. Documentary films can be some of the highest quality filmmaking out there, as well as a great tool for nonprofit organizations. Documentaries about poverty can cover almost any issue, discussing topics of hunger, health, education and more. Below are eight documentaries about poverty that are definitely worth watching.

 

8 Influential Documentaries about Poverty

 

Poverty, Inc.
This film examines and critiques the ways that good intentions from nonprofits and charity organizations can actually end up hurting the communities they wish to help. Some of these strategies include the Western attitude of patronizing developing countries and flooding a nation with handouts and thereby hurting its economy. Poverty, Inc. points out the flaws in certain forms of aid and how organizations and governments can fix them.

Why Poverty?
This is actually a series of eight documentaries about poverty that are available for streaming on the PBS website. Broadly speaking, the series asks why poverty still exists for over a billion people around the world. The episodes aim for awareness, examining the causes of poverty and looking for solutions.

We Feed the World
This film depicts the disparity between the amount of food available in the developing world with how much that they produce and eventually waste in those same nations.

Thought for Food
One of the shorter documentaries about poverty, this film also focuses on hunger. It tells the stories of students who created solutions for large food security problems. Consequently, it can give the viewer some ideas on how to fight hunger with their own skills.

Girl Rising
This documentary looks at the stories of nine different girls in Asia, South America and Africa and how they used their education to overcome obstacles. Celebrities narrated this film without sounding patronizing. Overall, Girl Rising illustrates the power of education in desperate circumstances through messages of inspiration and triumph.

Sewing Hope
While movements such as “Kony 2012” examined the plight of boys in Uganda forced to become child soldiers, this documentary looks at what happened to young girls and the quest to improve their lives. Many girls were taken as sex slaves and returned to their communities with their captors’ children. The documentary also examines Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe’s mission to give these women independence through vocational training like sewing and tailoring.

On the Way to School
This documentary inspects the greater global issue of education through a closer look at four personal stories in India, Morocco, Patagonia and Kenya. It is thus a great film to raise awareness about the things the Western world takes for granted in education.

Bending the Arc
This brand new documentary tells the story of the organization Partners in Health. It premiered at Sundance Film Festival this past January and is one to keep an eye out for.

Ellen Ray

Photo: Flickr

Learning in England
It has been increasingly difficult for young people to access arts and culture. School art provisions are declining rapidly. The total estimated cost spent in England and Wales on educational art services for 2016/2017 is projected to fall another 13 percent from 2015.

As a result, there has been a decline in English children becoming involved in art subjects, a reduction in art teaching hours and fewer art teachers employed in schools. Informal programs have also suffered due to local authority cuts.

The Cultural Learning Alliance (CLA) exists to address these issues. The alliance is a collective voice working to ensure that all children have meaningful access to cultural programs. Its goals are to advocate for a coherent national strategy for cultural learning, to unite the education, youth and cultural sectors, to showcase projects and demonstrate why cultural learning is so important.

The CLA first published the Imagine Nation report in 2011 to set the agenda for a national conversation about the value of cultural learning. The following statistics were included in the 2017 version of the report and outline the benefits of cultural learning:

  • Participation in structured arts activities can increase cognitive abilities by 17 percent.
  • Students from low-income families who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to graduate. These students are also 20 percent more likely to vote as young adults.
  • Studying art subjects increases the likelihood of students maintaining employment.
  • People who take part in the arts are 38 percent more likely to report good health.
  • Employability of students who study arts subjects is higher.

David Puttnam, the chairman of the CLA, has described the report as a wake-up call to boost cultural learning in England. “It is essential that access to arts is a right and not a privilege,” he says.

Similarly, Michelle Obama has stated that “Arts education…is the air many of these kids breathe. It’s how we get kids excited about getting up and going to school in the morning. It’s how we get them to take ownership of their future.”

The Imagine Nation report has resulted in a “call to arms” to boost cultural learning in England. According to the report, “we must act now to ensure that the next generation is given all the tools it needs to build a stronger, healthier society.”

Liliana Rehorn

Photo: Flickr

Art Responds to the Refugee Crisis in A World Not Ours
The Syrian refugee crisis receives enormous amounts of news coverage and is often a source of debate as a political and humanitarian issue. Still, for people removed from the situation it can be difficult to truly comprehend the severity of the situation. This is where art can serve as a way to engage a wider audience and explain the issues on a human level as opposed to politically and statistically.

In the past couple of years, there have been many notable art exhibitions dedicated to the refugee crisis. Most recently the exhibit A World Not Ours has received a significant amount of attention.

A World Not Ours is an exhibition backed by the Schwarz Foundation and curated by Katerina Gregos at the Art Space Pythagorion in the Greek Island of Samos. Greece is currently home to 57,000 refugees. A diverse group of artists illustrates the hardships and trauma of refugee life, hoping to create a greater understanding of the crisis and empathy for those 21 million refugees.

Lebanese artist Ninar Esber created a two-hour live performance piece, The Blind Lighthouse. A woman’s face is completely covered as she stands on top of a lighthouse facing the sea. The lights on the structure are very dim but the audience is encouraged to approach. However, once they approach, she turns away. It is an attempt to demonstrate the treacherous and unpredictable voyage refugees must take when they leave their country. The Schwarz Foundation states the performance “encourages us to reflect upon our relations with those on the ‘other’ side.”

Another artist featured is Tanja Boukal, who originates from Austria. She exhibited the photo collage Memories of Travels and Dreams which consists of a collection of items the artist found on her trip from Kuşadas, Turkey to Samos, Greece. She compares the trips between tourists and refugees. Though they are going to the same destinations, the trips are vastly different. Tourist buys a $40 ferry ticket in which they are offered varied amenities. A stark contrast from the $1500 refugees must pay to travel on a small, overcrowded and usually faulty boats.

Other artists include Yannis Behrakis, Róza El-Hassan, Mahdi Fleifel, Marina Gioti, Sallie Latch and many others.

Curator Gregos says “while exhibitions like these do not solve the problem, they do keep it alive in our minds and maintain public awareness so that the necessary debate continues. What is needed, ultimately, is empathy, the ability to consider the question ‘what if this were me? How would I react then?”

It is worthwhile to view the artwork presented in A World Not Ours because it offers an emotive perspective on the refugee crisis.

Karla Umanzor

Photo: Flickr