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Syrian youth take the stage in Alexandria

To mark the end of a successful project to teach and promote artistic skills among young Syrian refugees in Egypt, the Library of Alexandria hosted a celebration complete with performances by participants and UNICEF-affiliated artists.

On the occasion of the World Day for Cultural Diversity May 22, the Library of Alexandria hosted festivities to conclude a series of technical workshops to cultivate the artistic skills of Syrian children and young people. Organized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees over the past year, the project was the first of its kind to focus on the artistic talents of the refugees, and not just professional skills needed for the labor market.

The workshops were organized in cooperation between the Egyptian Cultural Center and the Syrian services center Suriyana. Rafa al-Rifa’i, the cultural center’s director, told Al-Monitor, “The participation of a Syrian center in the organization made it easier to communicate with a large number of trainees.” She added, “Many of their long-held dreams came true in training and forming new artistic troupes.”

Syrian singer Tariq Dargham al-Swaydan expressed as much when he told Al-Monitor that after he had achieved “wide public success in Syria before the war,” he resolved to use his experience to benefit Syrian youth by participating in the workshop as a trainer. He said, “I deliberately aimed to steer young people toward singing and [allow it to] have an impact on them. I also wanted to give them hope and let them know that [the only choices] are not just to travel and escape to Europe. With many of the participants we really did achieve that, feeling that they finally had a goal.”

Darwish, one of the young participants in the singing workshop, told Al-Monitor that he had previously decided to go to Europe, but he reconsidered after the workshop. He said, “I thought, ‘Why go illegally when I can achieve something for myself here in Egypt, and, through my art, I can get to Europe [after] they get to know me and after they seek me out.’”

Artistic groups affiliated with UNICEF also participated in the festivities, putting on concerts and theatrical performances that were warmly received by audiences.

Ahmad Mahrus, a UNICEF official responsible for children’s activities and support centers, told Al-Monitor, “These artistic groups were formed in 2015, and are comprised of both Syrian and Egyptian youth. They have been putting on shows continuously over the course of the various celebrations.” He commented on one show, saying, “The notion of Syrian children putting on a play in the Sa’idi dialect of Upper Egypt, at this level of fluency, is a sign of how strong the impetus to integration is in Egyptian society.”

Rifa’i said, “These artistic groups affiliated with Suriyana will continue to perform after the celebrations conclude. The workshops have developed their artistic talents and boosted their confidence as well.”

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees recorded four musical works by the band formed during the workshops, “Suriyana al-Funun.”

During the celebrations, the Syrian artistic troupes presented a variety of material drawn from Syrian and Egyptian folklore. The theater group put on performances addressing the experience of Syrian refugees who have come to Egypt, as well as several true stories that actually happened to the actors. One, for example, depicted the difficulties faced by a Syrian actor when he welcomed his mother at the airport in Egypt, arriving from Syria after his father’s death. One of the airport workers had harassed and detained her before another Egyptian worker stepped in to help.

Most of the audience members in the 250-person hall were Syrians, with a limited Egyptian contingent in their midst. One of them spent the celebration chanting inside the hall welcoming the Syrian crowd, telling them that Egypt was their second home.

Mona, one of the Egyptians present, told Al-Monitor, “I decided to attend the celebration to get to know the Syrian community up close.” She added, “We need to organize joint cultural activities between Egyptians and the Syrians living here, as a bridge to greater cultural familiarity and awareness among and between one another. I look at activities of this sort as a continuation of the cultural activism that is almost extinct in Alexandria. The situation in Syria is painful and horrific but we can get closer to our Syrian brothers in Egypt who have a positive impact. Putting together activities like this is one way of offering moral support to our Syrian brethren.”

Khawlah, a Syrian, told Al-Monitor, “I preferred the opera sung by the Egyptian kids. Egyptian children have more bravado than Syrian children, and it shows in their performance on stage. It’s not just because the latter is an expatriate living in Egypt. I also notice it in the classroom as a teacher, when the students speak in front of their classmates. But as for these artistic activities, there wasn’t much of them in Syria. You might say that sort of opportunity was limited to a very particular class.”

For his part, Mahrus told Al-Monitor, “When a child stands on stage and performs a show before a crowd, it gives them a high degree of self-confidence, and it also leaves them better able to look out for themselves. At the end of the day, that’s what UNICEF is aiming to do through these kinds of activities.”

The Syrian audience concluded the festivities with a round of zaghareet, and everyone crowded together to take selfies with the performers on stage. Swaydan, the singer, concluded, “Today, for the first time, I feel as if I’m on stage in Syria.”