Event celebrates Syrian culture, resilience, and the power of art

Faculty of Social Work hosts presentation and fundraiser Jan. 25 in Dean’s Positive Disruption series
From left: The University of Calgary's Isra Safadi, Ghada Alatrash, and Yahya El-Lahib are joining with members of Calgary’s Syrian community to organize The Journey to Resilience event on Jan. 25, 2019. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
From left: The University of Calgary's Isra Safadi, Ghada Alatrash, and Yahya El-Lahib are joining w

Art has surprising power, especially when its power is given to those who often aren’t given the spotlight. On Friday, Jan. 25, Calgarians are invited to a very special, inspiring celebration where Syrian newcomers will tell their own stories, sing their own songs, and share their culture and food.

“This is important,” explains Faculty of Social Work professor Dr. Yahya El-Lahib, PhD, “because the dominant discourses about refugees coming from war-torn countries like Syria tends to focus on them as traumatized victims who need saving.”

  • Pictured above are, from left: The University of Calgary's Isra Safadi, Ghada Alatrash, and Yahya El-Lahib are joining with members of Calgary’s Syrian community to organize The Journey to Resilience event on Jan. 25, 2019.

El-Lahib, who recently launched a SSHRC study called the Journey Home with researchers from Ryerson and University of Montreal, explains, “This really does two things, it valorizes host countries as ‘the saviour,’ and reproduces colonial discourses. It also over-victimizes refugees, which denies them agency and contributes to problematic stereotypes. When the system sees you only as a victim, the services provided will reflect that.

“They don't,” he adds, “see these people as anything but broken individuals who are in need of help.” 

Fundraising event celebrates resilience 

Flipping this notion of the “broken individual” on its head is one of the goals of the Jan. 25 celebration, titled The Journey to Resilience. 

“Refugees are often seen as vulnerable, broken, and in desperate need of saving,” says Dr. Ghada Alatrash, PhD, a Syrian-Canadian researcher who focuses on the experience of the Syrian Diaspora in Canada. “The Syrian participants in my research tell us otherwise. They say, ‘Despite the fact that we came here and had to begin from zero in Canada, we will try to continue. No, we will not try, we will continue. We will continue.’” 

Besides being an enjoyable celebration, the Jan. 25 event is designed to disrupt the dominant representations of Syrian-refugees as “vulnerable” and “weak” by celebrating their resilience in various presentations of art.  

As Alatrash says, “Their souls hurt. But they are resilient and they insist on finding a way to life despite all the hurt and pain. In this event, Syrians will tell their stories and share their lived experiences. Too often we only hear media discourses, but in this event, the stories will be told by Syrians themselves.”

Aya Mhana is a celebrated Syrian musician from Sweida who will perform at the Jan. 25 event. On July 25, 2018, ISIS militants massacred more than 250 people and kidnapped dozens of women. Proceeds from the fundraiser will go to those affected.

Aya Mhana is a celebrated Syrian musician from Sweida who will perform at the Jan. 25 event.

Using art as a teaching tool

As it turns out, the two collaborators on this event, El-Lahib and Alatrash, have previously collaborated on research highlighting the importance of using forms of art as a teaching tool — research that will underlie the unique evening.

“As someone who lived throughout my life in a war zone, these experiences are only one aspect of our realities,” reflects El-Lahib. “We laugh, we sing, we dance, and we do all kinds of practices that make us connect more to life. Art becomes a way to connect us to our reality and maybe help in disrupting adverse realities.  

“So the idea of engaging with art is about making a statement that refugees from war-torn countries are not just about surviving; it is a statement about their resilience, a statement about what they can offer to their new chosen home countries, a statement about being artful with the way they engage and appreciate the host society. 

“Using art to highlight these stories of resilience is our statement to illustrate the complexities of the refugees’ experiences and show the beauty of their integration in an artful way.”

Tickets for The Journey to Resilience are $30. The event will be held Jan. 25, 6-9:30 p.m., cSpace King Edward, 1721 29th Ave S.W.

Admission includes traditional Middle Eastern food and beverages. The evening is being organized by members of Calgary’s Syrian community along with Alatrash, El-Lahib and Isra Safadi. The Faculty of Social Work is proud to host the event as part of the Dean’s Positive Disruption series.  

All proceeds from the event will be donated to survivors and those impacted by the ISIS attack in Sweida, Syria. On July 25, 2018 ISIS militants kicked in the doors of people’s homes and massacred over 300 people and kidnapped dozens of women. 

Inside each is a dream, a goal, a desire to do something …

Alatrash reflects that the goal of The Journey to Resilience is really about bridging Syrians and Canadians and bridging between newcomers' new home and the home they left behind. Jan. 25 gives them a chance to be heard and hopefully better understood. 

Alatrash shares the words of a Syrian newcomer she interviewed in her research, who said, “Truly I hope that all Syrians who have come to Canada are given a chance and believed in. I'm certain that inside each of them is a dream, a goal, and a true desire to do something. I hope that they're given a chance. I am sure that Syrians can offer something beautiful and perhaps they can contribute to building the bridges that we have all talked about. And that is all."