UNHCR-run festival in Syria highlights arts and culture of Iraq

UNHCR highlights the culture and artistic talents of the Iraqi people during a weeklong festival in Damascus.

Hundreds of Syrian, Iraqi and expatriate children have been attending performances by Iraqi refugee clowns at the festival.   © UNHCR/B.Auger

DAMASCUS, Syria, April 3 (UNHCR) - As the Iraq crisis enters its sixth year, the UN refugee agency has been highlighting the culture and artistic talents of the Iraqi people during a weeklong festival in the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Artists, musicians, actors, dancers and poets have come together at the French Cultural Centre to show that Iraq's artistic tradition is alive and well despite the turmoil and massive displacement that has been taking place in their country since the April 2003 overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime.

The "Five Years On" festival opened last Sunday and some of the art featured will be sent to the United States and Europe for exhibition after the event closes on Friday. Two concerts of Iraqi music are taking place during the week.

The programme reflects Iraq's rich and diverse history of music with the oud, nai and qanun being played. Included is Kurdish, Arabic and Assyrian music from every corner of Iraq.

"We are here today to remember that Iraqis have faced five years of upheaval and turmoil. Many are refugees. Their talent in the face of sorrow is an expression of the strength and courage of all Iraqi refugees," Laurens Jolle, UNHCR's representative in Syria, said at the festival opening on Sunday.

The poster of the exhibition at the "Five Years On" festival held from 30 March 2008 to 4 April 2008 in Damascus, Syria.  © 

During the week, hundreds of Syrian, Iraqi and expatriate children have been attending an Iraqi refugee clown performance, videos of Iraqi children at school, at work and at home, and a debate led by UNHCR staff.

For the non-Iraqi children, the clown show is presented as one of the ways that UNHCR tries to help young refugees who have lost loved family members and faced trauma.

"The story of the little girl who lost her four brothers and father was very sad, but she smiled at the camera when she finished telling her story. What an amazing girl. I was happy to laugh with the clowns after hearing this sad story, but I will not forget the little girl," said a 10-year-old girl from the French school in Damascus.

This is the fourth event held by UNHCR Damascus as part of its "Express Yourself" campaign, which aims to promote Iraqi talent and give Iraqi refugees creative avenues to express what it means for them to be refugees. In addition, a troupe of clowns regularly visit the UNHCR Registration Centre in Damascus as well as community centres, clinics and homes.

An estimated 2 million people have fled violence in Iraq and escaped overseas, including some 1.5 million in Syria.

By Sybella Wilkes in Damascus, Syria