There have been problems in Syria for years that featured in news but it was news that rarely reached young people. Over the summer, this situation became more pronounced to us when news of the Irish government agreed to accept 4,000 Syrian refugees hit headlines, following the first announcement of Ireland’s response being to accept a paltry 600 refugees.
In the meantime, our art teacher Mr.Rooney was exploring the issues further with his son by engaging art as a tool for learning about the causes of conflict in Syria through personal stories of the people fleeing the war.
By the time school resumed in September it was one of the main topics being talked about: the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.
The sustainable development goals, due for agreement in September between governments across the world, were being discussed in November by students from many schools and youth groups across the country at the Change the World Youth Summit in the RDS in Dublin, organised by Concern Worldwide and the National Youth Council of Ireland.
How could the Youth Summit talk about the big ideas without including one of the big issues?
An invitation to think about linking these two was offered to our Transition Year class by Mr Rooney with Tony Daly from 80:20 Educating and Acting for a Better World, which ten of us jumped at.
A status on Facebook, a tweet on Twitter or a post on Instagram would’ve been lost in the waves of reporting of those perishing on Europe’s shores on a daily basis.
We decided that an art installation on the scale and root causes of the refugee crisis was a useful and creative way for us to get our voices heard and work with our peers on the issues.
Our idea was simple. Get our point across using the universal language of art.
The people and boats: We started by learning how to make different kinds of origami boats and then created 2,800 origami people that represent the 2,800 Syrian refugees that had died attempting to flee their life full of terror at home by boat (this number had increased by hundreds more after the figures had been created in September).
The causes and the sea: We printed newspaper articles about the situation in Syria and the refugee crisis, dyed them blue and glued them onto 30 wooden boards. This was used to symbolize the treacherous seas that the refugees are hurdling over. Alongside this, we printed out many more newspaper articles about European responses to the refugee crisis on orange card, which were to be used to make boats on the day of the Youth Summit in the RDS.
To bring the Mediterranean home to Ireland, we then cut out outlines of Irish patrol ships that were sent out to support the rescue of those at sea: the LÉ Niamh, LÉ Eithne and the LÉ Samuel Beckett.
And then, it was show time…
Bringing the artwork to the Youth Summit
On was a frosty morning in November, 10 tired schoolboys arrived at the RDS in Dublin from County Wicklow ready and willing to place the artwork on show and to involve the attendees of the Youth Summit in it.
We were there an hour and half before the event started and planting the ‘sea’ boards on the ground in our corner of the room with the intentions of moving it around the hall over the course of the day. The moving sea, shifting ‘sea tiles’ from the back to the front, symbolised the migration that refugees experience from ‘our corner’ of the room, Syria, to the centre of the room, Europe.
At the start of the event, we were given some horrifying news.
One of us had to go stage and introduce the art installation.
Thankfully Diarmuid stepped up and volunteered to do it. He got on stage and told summit participants about our moving art installation that would be happening throughout the day from the corner.
On arrival at the summit everyone was given a bag at the door that featured the orange cards that the boats would ultimately be made from that contained the headlines/articles/images on the responses to the crisis.
Once the workshops started we invited people to join our corner and write a reflection piece on the reverse side of the orange ‘stimulus’ card, which Diarmuid documented and myself, James, Lance and Daniel showed the event-goers how to turn their cards into boats using origami!
Participants then brought their boats over to Sam, Connor, Liam and Connor’s table where they selected a few names and wrote down of those who had died trying to cross the Mediterranean on the 2,800 people paper cut-outs, then placing them in their boat and joining the moving ‘sea boards’.
Some people stayed on to learn how to make origami flowers, which would be placed on ‘the sea’ at the end of the summit to acknowledge those who had died at sea. We made these out of red and white card.
Throughout the course of the day the art project managed involve more than 400 people from the Youth Summit. We were all blown away with the energy, enthusiasm to take part and the reflections offered by the participants.
Ending The Day
By 3pm Diarmuid and I were feeling energised from the reactions at the summit so volunteered ourselves and go up on stage on behalf of the group and read out the reactions of the attendees to their articles/photos etc. on their cards and explain the meaning behind the installation.
Connor, meanwhile, placed the paper cut-out people from the boats into a large bottle to illustrate (literally) how many refugees have died at sea and all the stories, messages that can never be told.
Finally, James placed the flowers of condolence to show our sympathy and acknowledge those who have perished.
As the Youth Summit came to a close we were humbled as a group to the enthusiasm and interest from other young activists in their responses to the Syrian refugee crisis.
Though the boats installation was for one day, we demonstrated an example of art’s potential as a powerful tool for having big conversations about challenging issues.
The question now is, what will your next art action be?
A group of people from Bray (Presentation College Bray and 80:20 Educating and Acting for a Better World) came together to produce a public art installation on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria.
Involving over 400 participants, the art work was displayed at the Change the World Youth Summit in Dublin on the Sustainable Development Goals in the RDS on 19th November 2015, organised by Concern Worldwide and the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI).