1,760 feet of canvas (536 meters) showing the paintings of over 1,000 Syrian refugee children was displayed at the National Mall in Washington D.C. on October 23-27 this year. Pictures of trees, families, SpongeBob and princesses are interspersed with paintings of broken hearts, knives, fire trucks and a building marked UNISF (UNICEF). It is a tale of loss and hope told in pictures by children whose lives have been forever altered by war, and it was laid out for everyone to see. But where did this canvas come from and where will it go now?
Two years ago Beats, Rhymes and Relief was founded by Omar Al-Chaar and Rameen Aminzadeh. They founded this non-profit organization as part of their passionate commitment to use the arts to raise awareness of the plight of children in various grave situations around the world. Omar had spent summers traveling to Syria as a child and, as the Syrian crisis worsened throughout 2011 and 2012, he wanted to help. He and Rameen arranged a successful relief concert in 2012 that raised awareness and funds for Syrian refugees, but when it was over they knew they wanted to do more. They partnered with Hazami Barmada from Barmada Consulting and started thinking about what to do next.
Hazami and Omar decided to go to Jordan to shoot a video about the Syrian children housed in the refugee camps. Omar has a background in film, including documentaries and it seemed like a good place to start. As Omar and Hazami were filming the video of Syrian children, they were also trying to pick a subject for the video that would be engaging. Watching the children play, despite the tragedy of their situation, made them determined to honor the spirit of these kids. At that time Pharrell Williams' song "Happy" was very popular and Omar and Hazami realized it would be the perfect tune to highlight not only their extraordinary resilience, but also the need for the world to take action to help restore what has been taken from these children. Naming the campaign #RestoreHappy, Omar and Hazami created a video of the celebration of hope in the midst of loss. They also dedicated this campaign to raising money for education and mental health programs for the kids in the Syrian refugee camps. You can see the #RestoreHappy video on YouTube here.
During their time in Jordan, a cab driver heard Omar and Hazami talking about their video project and became very excited. He said that they needed to meet with a famous Jordanian actor he knew who was working with the kids. Omar and Hazami found themselves sitting down with Nawar Bulbul a few days later. It turned out Nawar had just finished participating in an art therapy program with the Syrian kids. Paints and supplies had been donated and tents set up where the kids could come in and paint what they were feeling onto larger than life canvases. The art work occupied the kids, many of whom had nothing to do all day as no education programs were in place, and it gave them an outlet to express how they were feeling. Nawar asked Hazami and Omar if they wanted to take the canvas since the program was over and it was just sitting in storage. Hazami and Omar jumped at the chance, instantly realizing that the world needed to see these paintings.
Five months later, Beats, Rhymes and Relief held a five-day-long exhibition of the canvas at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Over 10,000 people saw the canvas. National and international news agencies picked up the story and Anne Richard from the U.S. State Department held an interview with BBC World in front of the canvas.
Tammara Fort, co-founder of WorkerAnts.com, was in Washington, D.C. that week. She had decided to take a tourist day and was walking through the National Mall on Friday, October 24. The exhibit was so eye-catching that she stopped by one of booths set up around the canvas and had the opportunity to speak to Omar. She said that Omar's passion for this project and the purity of the #RestoreHappy exhibit was inspirational and that the effect of this canvas cannot be overestimated. Women and men would walk by and be confused about what the canvas was until they asked one of the volunteers. When they learned who had painted the canvas many would start crying. The volunteers said that seeing the effect the kid's drawings had on the public and the powerful connection that people could make with these children living thousands of miles away, made them feel that the weeks of 20 hour days spent setting up for the event was worth it.
Omar shared with us one of his favorite stories from the exhibit, which is of a young African-American boy, about 5 years old, who was walking by with his mom. After Omar explained to the mother what the exhibit was for, she in-turn explained it to her son. Then the volunteers asked the boy if he would like to write a message to the kids in Syria. He got really excited and insisted that he be allowed to write the message himself. Omar says that the boy was there for at least 25-30 minutes crafting each letter, erasing and fixing them until they were perfect. He refused to let anyone help him because it was so important to him that it was his message and not someone else's that went to the kids in Syria. Omar said that he and all the volunteers there were deeply moved by the purity of this child's love for others.
Many other people also took the opportunity to send a message to the Syrian kids. The day before the event started the Beats, Rhythm and Relief team decided to run a selfie campaign during the exhibition. People could write messages on a chalkboard to the Syrian kids so that the children would have the chance to see that there are people around the world thinking about them. The plan is to have all the messages translated and put into an album that can be sent back to Jordan for the children to see.
Beats, Rhymes and Relief is working to bring the canvas to the United Nations headquarters in New York City. Their team is also talking to interested parties in Atlanta, Boston and Los Angeles with international tours being discussed in London and Switzerland. The culmination of the #RestoreHappy project is a charity concert in March 2015 in Washington, D.C. They are also running numerous other programs that utilize art to create awareness for people and kids in need.
We at WorkerAnts are truly impressed by the creativity and dedication of the Beats, Rhymes and Relief team and we applaud the work that they are doing to help the children of Syria. These kids are resilient but they desperately need our help. Mental health and education resources are almost non-existent in many camps and that has to change. Go online and see the #RestoreHappy campaign on Twitter. Also, check out the other programs that Beats, Rhymes and Relief is running that utilize art to create awareness for people and kids in need. You can link to them on the WorkerAnts.com site at http://workerants.com/organization/beats-rhymes-relief.