Graphic novels tell the stories of Zaatari’s Syrian refugees

Published August 11th, 2015 - 15:08 GMT

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A picture tells a thousand words. It also conveys meaning when words fall down on the job. And words fail frequently when stories are raw and emotional, and when they involve crossing boundaries - national ones in times of war, and cultural and linguistic ones in refugee camps. Therein lies the power of the graphic novel.

Canadian artist Jean Bradbury, a frequent visitor to Jordan, started a small non-profit called Studio Syria to raise funds for art and educational supplies for refugees in Zaatari camp and in centers serving Syrian refugees across the kingdom. Her last trip to Zaatari centered on workshops teaching how to create a graphic novel. Bradbury shared drawing techniques and described how to build a narrative – essential tools for telling stories with pictures.   Continue reading below »

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All-men classes were split between art newbies (some had never before drawn a picture!) and this crew of professionals, many of whom were art students or teachers before the Syrian conflict began. Some are members of the Fountain of Youth, a Zaatari camp art collective supported by NGO International Relief and Development.
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Image 1 of 17:  1 / 17All-men classes were split between art newbies (some had never before drawn a picture!) and this crew of professionals, many of whom were art students or teachers before the Syrian conflict began. Some are members of the Fountain of Youth, a Zaatari camp art collective supported by NGO International Relief and Development.

Enlarge
The graphic novel format was new to all, so Bradbury taught facial proportions and different means of conveying emotion. Eyebrows dragged downward quickly convey anger, an important insight into storytelling when images replace words. A funny face by the teacher drove the lesson home.
Reduce

Image 2 of 17:  2 / 17The graphic novel format was new to all, so Bradbury taught facial proportions and different means of conveying emotion. Eyebrows dragged downward quickly convey anger, an important insight into storytelling when images replace words. A funny face by the teacher drove the lesson home.

Enlarge
Not bad, for someone's first-ever portrait. The class - conducted in a small metal caravan - included clever 'sketching warm-ups' to loosen up the group. Soon everyone was focused on their work, hardly aware of the stifling heat.
Reduce

Image 3 of 17:  3 / 17Not bad, for someone's first-ever portrait. The class - conducted in a small metal caravan - included clever "sketching warm-ups" to loosen up the group. Soon everyone was focused on their work, hardly aware of the stifling heat.

Enlarge
Ahmed nailed the eyebrow lesson, perfectly communicating confusion in his over-sized self portrait. By the end of this session, the black charcoal drawing sticks left the crew looking like coal-miners.
Reduce

Image 4 of 17:  4 / 17Ahmed nailed the eyebrow lesson, perfectly communicating confusion in his over-sized self portrait. By the end of this session, the black charcoal drawing sticks left the crew looking like coal-miners.

Enlarge
Cultural context required some special attention, as the men were uncomfortable drawing women who are not family members. IRD staffer Mays stepped in as life model and the guys practiced sketching her expressions and the folds of her hijab. Bradbury told them, 'You leave out half your stories if you can't draw life-like women.'
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Image 5 of 17:  5 / 17Cultural context required some special attention, as the men were uncomfortable drawing women who are not family members. IRD staffer Mays stepped in as life model and the guys practiced sketching her expressions and the folds of her hijab. Bradbury told them, "You leave out half your stories if you can't draw life-like women."

Enlarge
After exercises executed in black and white, the colors came out.  Primitive portraits spilled onto the table, brilliantly painted with chalk pastels and gorgeously expressive - but this class was on graphic novels - and so back to learning their specific structure.
Reduce

Image 6 of 17:  6 / 17After exercises executed in black and white, the colors came out. Primitive portraits spilled onto the table, brilliantly painted with chalk pastels and gorgeously expressive - but this class was on graphic novels - and so back to learning their specific structure.

Enlarge
The artists first wrote out a storyboard - in text - dividing their stories into individual scenes. With ink dip pens and brushes, they then converted the language to images. Western stories unfold in panels from left to right, which here reversed to fit with right-leading Arabic print and typesetting.
Reduce

Image 7 of 17:  7 / 17The artists first wrote out a storyboard - in text - dividing their stories into individual scenes. With ink dip pens and brushes, they then converted the language to images. Western stories unfold in panels from left to right, which here reversed to fit with right-leading Arabic print and typesetting.

Enlarge
There wasn't a sound in the room as the men were drawing.  Most skipped over a rough pencil draft, jumping right into their painted sketches. The intensity was palpable.
Reduce

Image 8 of 17:  8 / 17There wasn't a sound in the room as the men were drawing. Most skipped over a rough pencil draft, jumping right into their painted sketches. The intensity was palpable.

Enlarge
As each drawing was completed, the group conducted an informal critique. Mays interpreted the finished comics, allowing for everyone to ask questions, make suggestions, and hear artist clarifications. Then back to another drawing, each time producing stories with greater power and detail.
Reduce

Image 9 of 17:  9 / 17As each drawing was completed, the group conducted an informal critique. Mays interpreted the finished comics, allowing for everyone to ask questions, make suggestions, and hear artist clarifications. Then back to another drawing, each time producing stories with greater power and detail.

Enlarge
Some artists chose emotionally charged subjects that spoke for themselves. Others stayed with neutral themes of football games and meal preparation.
Reduce

Image 10 of 17:  10 / 17Some artists chose emotionally charged subjects that spoke for themselves. Others stayed with neutral themes of football games and meal preparation.

Enlarge
Many used the class to share stories of how they came to Zaatari, searing emotions spilled through the simple drawings.
Reduce

Image 11 of 17:  11 / 17Many used the class to share stories of how they came to Zaatari, searing emotions spilled through the simple drawings.

Enlarge
Ibrahim's village was barrel-bombed repeatedly, killing many of his immediate family. He escaped to Zaatari with his wife and two young children, where they now live in a 200-square-foot metal caravan. What's remarkable? That his story is not at all remarkable among the stories of Zaatari.
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Image 12 of 17:  12 / 17Ibrahim's village was barrel-bombed repeatedly, killing many of his immediate family. He escaped to Zaatari with his wife and two young children, where they now live in a 200-square-foot metal caravan. What's remarkable? That his story is not at all remarkable among the stories of Zaatari.

Enlarge
Bradbury later translated the original story texts and reversed the panel arrangements so that the final artworks could be read by English readers. This one tells of one family's harassment before heading for the Jordanian border.
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Image 13 of 17:  13 / 17Bradbury later translated the original story texts and reversed the panel arrangements so that the final artworks could be read by English readers. This one tells of one family's harassment before heading for the Jordanian border.

Enlarge
By the end of the day, the students were spinning stories with speed. Drawings became more detailed, with clearly articulated subjects. All promised to continue documenting their tales after the workshop ended, to 'get them out of my head', said one, or to record them for family and friends.
Reduce

Image 14 of 17:  14 / 17By the end of the day, the students were spinning stories with speed. Drawings became more detailed, with clearly articulated subjects. All promised to continue documenting their tales after the workshop ended, to "get them out of my head", said one, or to record them for family and friends.

Enlarge
Muhammad al Amari, one of the leaders of the Fountain of Youth art group, summed up their attitude with, 'Art is great, despite the suffering.'
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Image 15 of 17:  15 / 17Muhammad al Amari, one of the leaders of the Fountain of Youth art group, summed up their attitude with, "Art is great, despite the suffering."

Enlarge
A simple reminder of where this creativity is happening.  Not in art museums, universities or art studios. But within a fenced compound atop hard-packed desert sand called Zaatari.
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Image 16 of 17:  16 / 17A simple reminder of where this creativity is happening. Not in art museums, universities or art studios. But within a fenced compound atop hard-packed desert sand called Zaatari.

Enlarge
Happen to be in Amman this week? Meet many of the artists in this story and view (or purchase) their work at a limited exhibition held August 15 through 18 at The Syrian Women Across Borders Center, on University Street, Amman. It is the second time the Fountain of Youth group is publicly exhibiting their Zaatari work.
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Image 17 of 17:  17 / 17Happen to be in Amman this week? Meet many of the artists in this story and view (or purchase) their work at a limited exhibition held August 15 through 18 at The Syrian Women Across Borders Center, on University Street, Amman. It is the second time the Fountain of Youth group is publicly exhibiting their Zaatari work.

Enlarge

1

All-men classes were split between art newbies (some had never before drawn a picture!) and this crew of professionals, many of whom were art students or teachers before the Syrian conflict began. Some are members of the Fountain of Youth, a Zaatari camp art collective supported by NGO International Relief and Development.

Image 1 of 17All-men classes were split between art newbies (some had never before drawn a picture!) and this crew of professionals, many of whom were art students or teachers before the Syrian conflict began. Some are members of the Fountain of Youth, a Zaatari camp art collective supported by NGO International Relief and Development.

2

The graphic novel format was new to all, so Bradbury taught facial proportions and different means of conveying emotion. Eyebrows dragged downward quickly convey anger, an important insight into storytelling when images replace words. A funny face by the teacher drove the lesson home.

Image 2 of 17The graphic novel format was new to all, so Bradbury taught facial proportions and different means of conveying emotion. Eyebrows dragged downward quickly convey anger, an important insight into storytelling when images replace words. A funny face by the teacher drove the lesson home.

3

Not bad, for someone's first-ever portrait. The class - conducted in a small metal caravan - included clever 'sketching warm-ups' to loosen up the group. Soon everyone was focused on their work, hardly aware of the stifling heat.

Image 3 of 17Not bad, for someone's first-ever portrait. The class - conducted in a small metal caravan - included clever "sketching warm-ups" to loosen up the group. Soon everyone was focused on their work, hardly aware of the stifling heat.

4

Ahmed nailed the eyebrow lesson, perfectly communicating confusion in his over-sized self portrait. By the end of this session, the black charcoal drawing sticks left the crew looking like coal-miners.

Image 4 of 17Ahmed nailed the eyebrow lesson, perfectly communicating confusion in his over-sized self portrait. By the end of this session, the black charcoal drawing sticks left the crew looking like coal-miners.

5

Cultural context required some special attention, as the men were uncomfortable drawing women who are not family members. IRD staffer Mays stepped in as life model and the guys practiced sketching her expressions and the folds of her hijab. Bradbury told them, 'You leave out half your stories if you can't draw life-like women.'

Image 5 of 17Cultural context required some special attention, as the men were uncomfortable drawing women who are not family members. IRD staffer Mays stepped in as life model and the guys practiced sketching her expressions and the folds of her hijab. Bradbury told them, "You leave out half your stories if you can't draw life-like women."

6

After exercises executed in black and white, the colors came out.  Primitive portraits spilled onto the table, brilliantly painted with chalk pastels and gorgeously expressive - but this class was on graphic novels - and so back to learning their specific structure.

Image 6 of 17After exercises executed in black and white, the colors came out. Primitive portraits spilled onto the table, brilliantly painted with chalk pastels and gorgeously expressive - but this class was on graphic novels - and so back to learning their specific structure.

7

The artists first wrote out a storyboard - in text - dividing their stories into individual scenes. With ink dip pens and brushes, they then converted the language to images. Western stories unfold in panels from left to right, which here reversed to fit with right-leading Arabic print and typesetting.

Image 7 of 17The artists first wrote out a storyboard - in text - dividing their stories into individual scenes. With ink dip pens and brushes, they then converted the language to images. Western stories unfold in panels from left to right, which here reversed to fit with right-leading Arabic print and typesetting.

8

There wasn't a sound in the room as the men were drawing.  Most skipped over a rough pencil draft, jumping right into their painted sketches. The intensity was palpable.

Image 8 of 17There wasn't a sound in the room as the men were drawing. Most skipped over a rough pencil draft, jumping right into their painted sketches. The intensity was palpable.

9

As each drawing was completed, the group conducted an informal critique. Mays interpreted the finished comics, allowing for everyone to ask questions, make suggestions, and hear artist clarifications. Then back to another drawing, each time producing stories with greater power and detail.

Image 9 of 17As each drawing was completed, the group conducted an informal critique. Mays interpreted the finished comics, allowing for everyone to ask questions, make suggestions, and hear artist clarifications. Then back to another drawing, each time producing stories with greater power and detail.

10

Some artists chose emotionally charged subjects that spoke for themselves. Others stayed with neutral themes of football games and meal preparation.

Image 10 of 17Some artists chose emotionally charged subjects that spoke for themselves. Others stayed with neutral themes of football games and meal preparation.

11

Many used the class to share stories of how they came to Zaatari, searing emotions spilled through the simple drawings.

Image 11 of 17Many used the class to share stories of how they came to Zaatari, searing emotions spilled through the simple drawings.

12

Ibrahim's village was barrel-bombed repeatedly, killing many of his immediate family. He escaped to Zaatari with his wife and two young children, where they now live in a 200-square-foot metal caravan. What's remarkable? That his story is not at all remarkable among the stories of Zaatari.

Image 12 of 17Ibrahim's village was barrel-bombed repeatedly, killing many of his immediate family. He escaped to Zaatari with his wife and two young children, where they now live in a 200-square-foot metal caravan. What's remarkable? That his story is not at all remarkable among the stories of Zaatari.

13

Bradbury later translated the original story texts and reversed the panel arrangements so that the final artworks could be read by English readers. This one tells of one family's harassment before heading for the Jordanian border.

Image 13 of 17Bradbury later translated the original story texts and reversed the panel arrangements so that the final artworks could be read by English readers. This one tells of one family's harassment before heading for the Jordanian border.

14

By the end of the day, the students were spinning stories with speed. Drawings became more detailed, with clearly articulated subjects. All promised to continue documenting their tales after the workshop ended, to 'get them out of my head', said one, or to record them for family and friends.

Image 14 of 17By the end of the day, the students were spinning stories with speed. Drawings became more detailed, with clearly articulated subjects. All promised to continue documenting their tales after the workshop ended, to "get them out of my head", said one, or to record them for family and friends.

15

Muhammad al Amari, one of the leaders of the Fountain of Youth art group, summed up their attitude with, 'Art is great, despite the suffering.'

Image 15 of 17Muhammad al Amari, one of the leaders of the Fountain of Youth art group, summed up their attitude with, "Art is great, despite the suffering."

16

A simple reminder of where this creativity is happening.  Not in art museums, universities or art studios. But within a fenced compound atop hard-packed desert sand called Zaatari.

Image 16 of 17A simple reminder of where this creativity is happening. Not in art museums, universities or art studios. But within a fenced compound atop hard-packed desert sand called Zaatari.

17

Happen to be in Amman this week? Meet many of the artists in this story and view (or purchase) their work at a limited exhibition held August 15 through 18 at The Syrian Women Across Borders Center, on University Street, Amman. It is the second time the Fountain of Youth group is publicly exhibiting their Zaatari work.

Image 17 of 17Happen to be in Amman this week? Meet many of the artists in this story and view (or purchase) their work at a limited exhibition held August 15 through 18 at The Syrian Women Across Borders Center, on University Street, Amman. It is the second time the Fountain of Youth group is publicly exhibiting their Zaatari work.

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There were a few bumps. Like guys going silent when considering their journey to Jordan. Also cultural hiccups, as when she urged them to include women in their stories, and discovered their discomfit at drawing the female form.

Western comic books creeped towards serious storytelling in the mid 19th Century, rising to critical success in the 1980’s with publications such as Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (which influenced Batman films that followed) and Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus (which recounted his father’s experiences as a Polish Jew during World War II).

In 1996, Joe Sacco published his graphic novel Palestine, based on his extended visit to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a two-volume set that won an American Book Award. Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi published Persepolis, her coming-of-age tale set during the Iranian revolution, which was adapted for film in 2007.

Perhaps one of these giants in the genre will now turn their sights to the Syrians, or one of these amateur artists will continue with his work with continued support from people like Bradbury, and those who support her cause. These potent pictures guarantee a bestseller.

 

 

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