Freedom House



Art Beyond Asylum

GERMANY – Art as a powerful means of expression has played significant roles in times of peace and war. Even in Syria where armed extremist groups and the atrocities of a bloodthirsty regime are dominant, art remains a meaningful weapon against all that darkness.

Fleeing from a war-torn country, many Syrians have sought refuge in European countries, most notably in Germany. The discourse has ranged from support to rejection over the settlement of refugees. Many negative stories have circulated that make generalizations about all refugees such as the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne or the bullying of young refugees in a Munich subway. Indeed, there have been narratives against refugees in Germany, which reflect the fear of a significant segment of the German population. For instance, refugees will negatively affect the welfare of Germans because they must be provided with financial and social aid, costing the state money.

Witnessing the largest exodus in recent history, it remains difficult to focus on art while other issues seem more pressing. However, neglecting art is the first step in the wrong direction. Somewhere in Germany, a confused soul might be begging the question…Are there positive signs?

Artistic Signs of Good Faith

In October 2015, a group of refugees, mainly Syrian artists in Germany, organized a campaign under the title “Thank you Germany” in an attempt to thank Germans for hospitably receiving tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. Monas Bukhari, a Syrian artist and the founder of a socio-cultural group called “The Syrian House,” told the German Press Agency: “The campaign aims at producing a photo book and opening exhibitions for Syrian photographers residing in Germany as a kind of appreciation for Germany’s generosity.” While hundreds of Syrians joined the campaign across Germany distributing red roses to locals and many Germans responded to the initiative as a sign of good faith.

In cooperation with more than 100 Syrian artists within and outside Germany, the group plans on organizing a photo gallery in Berlin for Syrian photographers.

The exhibition, “Smile of Hope,” will host the work of Syrian photographers residing in Syria in order to alter the gloomy picture Europeans have towards Syrian refugees and life in Syria over the past few years.

The same group also organized several musical concerts, in which German and Syrian musicians played different kinds of music side-by-side.

In February, 2016, Syrian refugees participated in the celebrations of Rose Monday Carnival in Cologne. The Syrians wore local traditional clothes and danced to the tunes of popular German music. Syrian folklore bands, Sham Band To Revive The Heritage Of Damascus and Kurdistan Band To Commemorate The Kurdish Folklore, organized by the Educational Centre for Human Rights in Wuppertal, joined the festival to play musical instruments and sing Arabic and Kurdish songs. As Donald Trump usually says: “It was a beautiful thing.”

A Song Wins

As Xenophobes and far-right groups claim the futility of integration programs and that Middle Easterners are inclined to be extremists planning to take over Europe, signs point in the opposite direction. A song wins the debate.

In cooperation with musician-activists in Bremen, Syrian musicians who fled the civil war created the Expat Philharmonic Orchestra to give back to their new community.

Double-bass-player Raed Jazbeh, who fled to Germany three years ago, put together a small group of Syrian musicians in Bremen which has become an orchestra, combining songs from Syrian and European classical music. The orchestra is composed of Syrian and local musicians defying the rhetoric of fear mongers.

“With music we can liberate ourselves from all the designations,” said flutist Fadwa Merkhan to Merkhan played in the orchestra’s first performance on 22 September 2015 at Sendesaal Theatre in Bremen. The orchestra performed classical, jazz and Syrian music pieces at its premiere.

Musician and singer Ribal Al-Khudri is another example of a Syrian who found a safe haven in Germany. In his current project “Arabesque,” Al-Khudri says that he aims to build cultural bridges between people through music: Syrian artists on one hand and Germans on the other.

These young talents are trying to express the pain of Syrians with a song and draw a beautiful image of cultural Syria away from the image of violence portrayed by the media. It is true that the image of Syria is dominated by war. But it is also true that Syria has a rich culture. These are not only refugees, but artists.

A Talent Is a Talent

A Syrian filmmaker, who is currently a refugee in Germany, turned into a “YouTube star” after he cleverly dealt with the issue of integrating refugees in German society. The young Syrian, Firas Al-Shater, speaking decent German, humorously highlights the habits of German people from the perspective of a newcomer. Through comedy and light humor, Al-Shater is trying to bridge the gap between Syrians and locals.

On 28 January 2015, Al-Shater aired the first episode of his video-series called “Sugar.” While his videos are funny, witty and down-to-earth, Al-Shater tells stories about his personal experiences and his desire to learn more about Germans. In one of his videos he tells the story of an experiment he carried out at Alexander Platz in Berlin, in which he held a sign saying: “I am a Syrian refugee, I trust you, do you trust me? Hug me!”

The experiment appears to be an imitation of a video made by a Muslim Parisian YouTuber following the terrorist attacks in November 2015. At the end of the video, Al-Shater points out that in Germany it takes a little longer for people to show emotions, but when they do, they do not stop.

Art Knows No Borders

In 2011 at the beginning of the Syrian uprising, there were tragic reports about painters, singers, actors, poets, writers and other artists, most notably the torture of the cartoonist Ali Farzat who was savagely beaten by regime thugs for satirizing the Syrian leadership. Many artists were prompted to flee to Germany and other European countries. While some of them had to go through the tough asylum procedures, others made it through art-scholarships.

In December 2015, the Syrian painter Hussam Sarah opened his first caricature exhibition in the German city of Bonn, under the title “Comics From Syria.” The exhibition included 30 paintings which told stories about different aspects of Syria.

Through his art, Sarah said that he wants to deliver two messages to Germans. The first, inviting the German people to add more pressure to end the conflict in Syria, is political. The second is to show that Syrian refugees are not amateur asylum seekers. They can effectively contribute to and enrich the community in which they live.

(Abdul-Razzaq Shallot/Facebook)

Another example is the Syrian painter, Abdul-Razzaq Shablot, who received a Heinrich Boell foundation scholarship for arts and arrived in Germany in October 2014. “As an artist, I have to paint to feel alive, and in order to do so, I had to escape Syria,” he told the Deutsche Welle.

Examples of contributors are numerous and might increase in the coming few years. In fact, those who made it are not only trying to share their talents with their German counterparts, but are also seeking to show the tragedies of war, raise awareness and promote peace.

These were just a few positive examples of how refugees can contribute to a society which has welcomed them.