Imagine being forced to leave your belonging, friends, your home, your family and your country and travel to an unknown place with no idea when or if you will ever return. What is left? How do you begin to rebuild a sense of identity when every guiding and stabilising force in your life has gone? In Haneen: Voices of Syrian Refugee Children Through Artists’ Eyes, viewers are confronted with painful insight into these questions.
Organised by UNICEF, the United Nations Childrens’ Fund, the exhibition at Beit Beirut features works by 39 Syrian and Lebanese artists, each based on a poem written by a Syrian child. The exhibition explores the impact of war on childhood, the loss of parents and loved ones, the dangers and indignities of life as a refugee and the hidden costs of conflict, like reduced access to education and the risk of child marriage.
The emotional impact of the artworks is magnified tenfold when they are viewed in conjunction with the poems that inspired them. Tomato Sandwich and My Mother’s Kiss, one the few three-dimensional works on show, is a black-and-white drawing of a mother curled around her daughter, drawn to fit the organic oval curves of a flat stone. The artwork by Joelle Achkar evokes a sense of love and safety, but in conjunction with the eponymous poem by 10-year-old Waad al-Mohammad, it is rendered unbearably sad. In phrases too adult for a child of 10, she writes that in Syria she never grew bored for her mother’s tomato sandwiches but that she no longer likes them because the tomatoes and the bread are different in this new place, and the sandwiches remind her of the fact that her mother is no longer with her.
Noura Badran’s watercolour Childhood is painted in soft, spring shades of yellow and green and shows a bike lying on the ground under a tree, as though tossed down by a child running off to play. In 13-year-old Aisha Al-Mohamad’s poem, she explains that children should look at the world as an endless garden, free from blood, violent seas and death. “Yes, we are children,” she writes. “But we bear the burden of grown men.”
A sketch by Mohamed Kraytem showing a child sucked into a vortex of numbers, based on a poem by 11-year-old Shokri Askar, explores the loss of identity by children who have been assigned classroom numbers, tent numbers, camp numbers and UN card numbers until “we no longer feel human. We are robots, with numbers, and no names.”
In Martial Laws, 13-year-old Hussain al-Ibrahim explains that his big house on a beautiful street in Syria has been replaced with a cramped tent in a camp, where the landowner forces the children to work. His heart-breaking words are illustrated by Ali Rifei in an over-painted photograph of a camp in which a boy walks with his arm around his younger sister below an enormous hand clutching a black ball that hides the sun in the sky.
The Arabic word “haneen” means yearning, longing, nostalgia for things lost. In this beautiful, collaborative exhibition, children who have lost everything are given a voice, both through sharing their words, the maturity of which reveals the many ways that war has forced them to grow up too fast, and through the artworks accompanying them, which communicate loss, horror and sadness but also hope, resilience and strength.
Haneen continues at Beit Beirut until March 11