Transforming public space together in a Syrian refugee camp

Posted By on Oct 31, 2015 | 1 comment

Catherine ShovlinCatherine Shovlin helps to transform violence into beauty and give hope in Syrian refugee camps where hope is a four letter word. A refugee twinning project.

Name: Catherine Shovlin
Title: Organiser of Syrian refugee camp project
Business/Company: Director, New Cross charity Bold Vision
Country/countries of origin: UK
Expat country/countries: Columbia
Current country: UK

Catherine’s story in a nutshell:

I have travelled extensively throughout my adult life. 70 countries and counting. Mostly for work. Many of them are beautiful, others I can cross off the list and won’t be going back to. All of them have taught me something and some have changed my life. I blog about my experiences on

Earlier this year I made my first trip to Jordan, staying with a friend who is an expat in a big NGO. We did a bit of tourist stuff (who could go to join and not see Petra?)  and I also got a chance to spend a day with the woman in their NGO responsible for community support for refugees.  Like everybody else I was aware of the ongoing challenges Syria is facing and the refugee problem felt most keenly in neighbouring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan at the time, though since then awareness in Europe has increased significantly.

As we talked I couldn’t help but notice how much we had in common. I am also a director of a community charity in New Cross, an area of multiple deprivation, high transience and enormous diversity in inner London. Each time I mentioned one of our projects or she mentioned an issue they were tackling, we echoed each other’s thoughts. By the end of the day I had decided I was definitely going to find a way to make this happen.

I got back to the UK and we (Patricio, the artist, creative genius and co-director of Artmongers) decided that we would do a project in one of the refugee camps, in less than ten weeks time. It was an outrageous target. We had no place to do the project, o plan for how we would pull it together and no funds. But sometimes you need an outrageous goal to get motivated. We made a film and set up a crowdfunding campaign. I got working on the NGO and we arranged two local fundraising events with some extraordinary musicians who gave their time for free.

A week before we had planned to start the project in Jordan, it was still touch and go. Then the NGO suddenly got on board and even offered to hep with some of the costs. Along with a donation of airmiles which reduced travel costs suddenly it all became possible. With a whole hour to spare I submitted our applications for a permit to go onto the camp.

The first thing that strikes you about the refugee camp is how colourless and desolate it is. The wind howls through, it was over 40 degrees without any shade in sight and there are few signs of life despite the tens of thousands of people living there. Over the next couple of days, s we got to know the place and the people we were struck by the lack of interaction. There wasn’t a single place to sit with another refugee and have a conversation. Apart from the official sources of information, food, medical care and so on there was no way to just share experiences. The refugees seemed lost. Shocked by what had happened to them in their recent past, bewildered by their powerlessness to shape their own destinies. Fed, kept alive, but lacking in human experience. We decided to use colour and co-creation to make art that could change the feel of a communal space and maybe – as we had seen in our own neighbourhood of New Cross, London – start to change behaviour too.

We started to run workshops with staff, refugees and volunteers. I trained a group of young people – mostly girls – to do the baseline and follow up evaluation. I loved watching them grow in confidence and stature. The role of women is not straightforward here and many of them had even less freedom in the camp. A good number, when we asked in the evaluation how many people they had interacted with the day before, other than their immediate family, gave the answer of zero. Patricio headed off to the paint shop and we started getting the permissions organised.

IMG_0340By the end of the second day we were ready to start the first project. Stones are one of the few things in plentiful supply there – and of course a weapon in the Arabic world. So dipping them in paint and glitter to make ‘peace rocks’ was doubly significant. We were transforming violence into beauty. When we hung them on the high, barbed wire topped fences to dry and they transformed those fences from exclusions to artworks, the impact was especially poignant.

We had meant the rock dipping to be an activity for the children, and indeed hundreds of them joined in. But so too did volunteers, clerks, even the head of camp security. One senior manager said “you made joy for us. That is the most joy I have felt since I started working here.”

The next morning though we realised we would have to work on a second idea. There wasn’t a single rock left.  When your home consists of standard issue UNHCR grey blankets and the few items you could carry when you fled your home, a glittering coloured rock is beauty beyond temptation.

More walking around the camp showed us the answer. Each block (the camp is divided into six villages, each of which has 15 blocks, each of which has 100 shelters) had a tap. Twice a day the women would come to collect water in improvised containers. It was the obvious place to create a sense of community. Patricio devised a design that draws from traditional Syrian craftwork and colours while being simple enough for quick execution by a team of volunteers and have a good impact. We wanted to shape the space and give it a sense of identity, a sense of place. After a few days hard work in gruelling conditions, the opening party for what they decided to call Hope Square was a foretaste of the possibility. Of the development of a new sense of community.

Our next challenge is to expand the project. I am going back in a couple of weeks to do the post-evaluation and then write the report. We hope that this can then be used to raise further funds and expand the idea. We would like to work with local artists too. Not just in Azraq but in other refugee camps. As they said to us “What we need more than anything is hope”.

Who are your cheerleaders?:

Right at the beginning my sister said to me “you are the prefect person to make this happen”. That kept me going when I didn’t know what to do next.
Everybody who I talk to about this project is SO encouraging. It is incredible. We seem to have tapped into a source of compassion and positive action that is very sustaining.

What are your words of Wisdom?:

Just because they say it can’t be done doesn’t mean they are right. You have a unique combination of experiences and skills and it may be that you are the very person the world has been waiting for to bring something new along.

Cultural differences:

After a few days I did start to wear a headscarf.  They hadn’t minded that I didn’t but they were delighted when I did. It was a curious experience.

Overcoming fear:

At the first workshop I had a big crowd of challenging teenagers to work with. I don’t have expertise in this area and we had no common language. I had to rely on an interpreter who also didn’t understand much about what I wanted to do and was very confused by the idea of not having a solution already but wanting to find the solution in the community. I realised I had to just present myself with integrity and hope that the young people could recognise that enough to go along with the uncertainty.




1 Comment

  1. Meghan and Heidi

    Thank you Catherine for sharing your story on Inspiring Global Entrepreneurs. We wish you good luck with your project and look forward to seeing future developments. Meghan and Heidi.

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