By Joshua Sherman
ENCINITAS, CA – The humanitarian crisis affecting Syrian refugees is a deeply upsetting and complex problem that will affect an entire generation. So let’s talk about something else.
Is that how your conversations about Syria typically go? In San Diego, we tried another approach to this heavy existential dilemma. Instead of doing something for the refugees, we wondered what can we do with them.
As the Cultural Programs Manager for Leichtag Foundation, an independent philanthropic foundation based in Encinitas, CA, this was the situation I presented Israeli artist and TED fellow Raffael Lomas this past summer. Through a creative project, maybe we could build compassion, empathy, and awareness.
Raffael Lomas had experience in this regard. He had been in San Diego to prepare an exhibition at the New Americans Museum regarding Sudanese refugees who had been deported from Israel and fled to Uganda. His work explores how creativity can be a tool of social change and I wanted to harness his gifts and apply them to the resettled Syrian refugee community just arriving in San Diego.
My organization, Leichtag Foundation had announced in September 2015 that it would be taking a leadership role in Syrian refugee resettlement in San Diego. Understanding that “welcoming the stranger” is a Jewish imperative (in fact repeated over thirty times in the Torah) and recalling the treatment of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, we committed giving special attention to this crisis and integrating it into our four strategic areas. And more personally, we wanted to honor Lee and Toni Leichtag, our founders, who were the children of Jewish refugees and immigrants, grew up in abject poverty, and would go on to leave 99% of their wealth to their community. One year into our initiative, we would learn that San Diego, as the eighth largest city in the U.S., has resettled more Syrian refugees than any other U.S. city.
Raffael had an idea. Leichtag Foundation purchased a 67 acre agricultural property in 2012 that had empty barn space. What if we used a barn as a creative space for the artistic expression of the Syrian refugee community? I had been preparing the cultural offerings for Leichtag Foundation’s annual Sukkot festival and believed this would be a beautiful demonstration of our values of inclusivity, urgency, and creativity in action. We called it “Refugee Artists-in-Residence.”
Raffael depended on the community of nonprofits – 30 of them – that work in the North County Hub, a collaborative coworking space here on the property. Through this network, Raffael was able to reach organizations involved in refugee advocacy (Jewish Family Service of San Diego, Partnership for the advancement of New Americans), the local art community (Encinitas Friends of the Arts), and even some microgrant support from the young Jewish community (Moishe House).
Through these networks, he found Abdullah Taysan, a Syrian refugee who had arrived only weeks earlier. Abdullah had been a craftsman in Syrian before he, his wife, and their four children were forced to flee to Jordan. Two of Abdullah’s children are severely disabled, and Abdullah knew if something happened, he couldn’t carry all his children to safety.
Raffael invited Abdullah and his family to visit Coastal Roots Farm, where Israeli farm apprentice Itai Siegel offered a tour of the farm. Coastal Roots Farm is a nonprofit Jewish community farm incubated by Leichtag Foundation with a social mission of improving food access in our region of San Diego. But the welcoming nature of the farm enabled us to relate to our guests in a very warm way. His family picked strawberries, tomatoes, and then we made a salad together.
So Raffael and Abdullah began to make a sculpture together – a giant tree made up of found materials. When Raffael had to return to Israel, we found other artists to support Abdullah to continue the work. As the months went on, we became closer with Abdullah, and learned how being a part of this experience was tremendously helpful to him and his family. His young girls would ask him every time he returned what he did today. When I met Abdullah, he couldn’t speak a word of English. Working on the sculpture gave him the opportunity to learn English in the context of joy and hope. I won’t forget the day he was working on the tree, laughing and smiling. It was transformative for me, too.
Sukkot was a month away and the four artists wanted to create a collaborative work. I suggested they build a sukkah. We build sukkot each year to relive the memory of nomadic life, of when the Jewish people were refugees too. But it wasn’t enough to just have Raffael and Abdullah build a sukkah – they wanted the sukkah to be interactive, and that during the Sukkot festival, Abdullah would lead an interactive activity for other Syrian refugee families.
During the week of Sukkot, we shared the works of Abdullah and his colleagues in an art show opening. Their individual works were regarding the notion of “home” and what that meant as refugees, immigrants, and guests. We invited the attendees to view the gallery and take a tour of Barn 8, the barn where it all happened. Abdullah’s children ran around with infectious smiles. Through a grant by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation’s Grassroots Initiative, we were able to invite our guests to watch a film about the project outside under the stars. I had set out twenty chairs, not sure of what the turnout for the film would be. Boy was I wrong. One hundred and fifty people sat there moved, silenced, and transformed from the story.
At Coastal Roots Farm’s big Sunday event, Sukkot Harvest Festival, Abdullah led the silly activities for other Syrian refugees. Here we were, right where we started, on a farm welcoming Syrian refugees, only this time Abdullah was doing the welcoming.
It’s my hope that this experience will be good for Abdullah, his family, and his community. I am certainly proud that among the first people to welcome him to San Diego was a Jewish foundation and an Israeli artist. I hope the trauma and depression that many refugees face was lifted for a moment and that his children could see their father contribute, connect, and build something beautiful.
Yes, these are very upsetting and complex problems. But when we’re facing them together and connecting with these families in creative ways, maybe we won’t be so eager to talk about something else.
Joshua Sherman is Cultural Program Manager at Leichtag Foundation.