Canada is using art to build bridges with Syrian refugees, while the rest of the world builds walls to keep them out

Artful integration.
Artful integration.
Image: Institute for Canadian Citizenship / Andrew Williamson
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Canada has welcomed more than 35,000 Syrians since last year, in stark contrast to other countries that are sealing their borders in response to the refugee crisis. To help them integrate, the country is turning to art—a critical part of Syria’s history and culture.

Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum, an institution that promotes Islamic heritage, recently invited a group of Syrian refugees to view a new exhibition tracing more than 5,000 years of art from their homeland. Called “Syria: A Living History,” the show is the first major art exhibition in the West on the region since the war erupted in 2011. While museums can take as long as two to three years to plan a show, Aga Khan Museum CEO and director Henry Kim says the project was fast-tracked, with 48 works gathered from seven international museums in 9 months. “We decided to do it under fairly short notice, because the story had to be told now. It couldn’t wait,” says Kim.

Aga Khan Museum’s show is one of many initiatives across Canada using art to communicate with Syrians and help them ease into life in a new country. The governmental Canada Council for the Arts, for example, has dedicated CAD $300,000 ($226,000), with the support of a private sponsor, to providing Syrian refugees with free access to more than 60 art spaces, theater and music performances.

“Most of the arts organizations are doing more than just offering tickets to see a show. Many are hosting special meetings, meals or discussions before and after shows for the Syrian community,” says Simon Brault, the Council’s director and CEO. “There are many needs to address when a country is accepting refugees: food, housing and social security, those come first, but to feel included, they also need to understand the culture of that new society.”

The Council’s pilot initiative is part of wider government and civic plans to welcome Syrian refugees. In addition to providing English classes for adults, the nonprofit CultureLink, a settlement agency that is financially supported by the government, has invited Syrian children aged 6 to 12 to form The Nai Children’s Choir. With the help of volunteer musicians, the children are taught to sing in Arabic, English, and French, and have been staging performances across Toronto since April. Through music, the youth are gaining confidence to deal with linguistic and social challenges.

“Welcoming people is a series of gestures that can take many forms,” says Charlie Foran, CEO of the nonprofit Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC), which organized the visit to Aga Khan Museum and has been taking Syrian refugees to museums across the country since April. “Art takes away the idea of otherness, of people being strangers…it’s fundamentally about how humans are connected.”

Syria at the crossroads

This idea of a dialogue between cultures is at the heart of “Syria: A Living History.” “Culture has a role to try to give a broader picture that you don’t necessarily get through other means,” Kim says. “We wanted people to understand the wonderful history of Syrians and also to empathize with it. In many ways their history overlaps with a lot of our own.”

Situated at the crossroads of Europe, Africa, and Asia, Syria is home to our earliest civilizations. As a result, its art has wide-reaching resonance. Ancient artifacts from multiple religions and cultures—Arab, Greek, Mesopotamian, Ottoman, Persian, and Roman—are reflected in the exhibition.

The show transports viewers into this rich country through large sheer banners with images of monuments hung throughout the space. Interspersed between these vistas are cases of artifacts with diverse backstories, such as two ornate silver chalices with Greek inscriptions from a Christian church dated 500–600 CE, reminders that some of the world’s oldest churches were built in Syria.

An image of the exhibition "Syria: A Living History"
“Syria: A Living History” is a reminder of the wide-reaching resonance of the country’s art and culture.
Image: Aga Kahn Museum

Other objects on view range from an exquisite 19th-century backgammon box to a mosaic bowl from 25 BCE-25 CE. The show is arranged according to different aspects of “what makes a human culture human—dealings with the home, state, family and religion,” says co-curator Nasser Rabbat, Aga Khan professor of Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “In the mind of everyone, Syria is a place where people are killing each other, ISIL is beheading people, and Russians are using phosphorus bombs… But it’s actually a place that contributed heavily to the production of what we call culture today.”

The American Schools of Oriental Research Cultural Heritage Initiatives (ASOR CHI) has recorded 1,583 incidents of damage to historic sites in Syria since 2014, with the magnitude and frequency rising each quarter. Airstrikes by Russia and the Syrian regime have joined ISIL’s ongoing attacks as causes of destruction. Looting is also rampant. “The cultural heritage of Syria is being pulverized and pilfered to support additional acts of warfare,” says archaeologist Michael Danti, ASOR CHI’s academic director. “It’s the worst cultural heritage crisis since World War II.” Aleppo, a once splendid city, has been thoroughly felled by the war.

In a corner of the exhibition, viewers have a chance to travel back in time and peer inside the Aleppo Room, an affluent merchant’s home in the city. As they walk around, visitors can use a museum tablet to see a virtual recreation of the 17th-century Ottoman-style building with domed ceilings, patterned floor tiles, and intricately painted red walls.

Danti says exhibitions with works like this are essential because they call attention to the traditions and culture under threat in Syria. “This is your local mosque that’s being destroyed or local cemeteries where your grandparents have been buried that are being bulldozed, so there are no above ground markers that are considered inappropriate by the Islamic State,” says Danti. “They are ripping apart the fabric of daily life…[Objects and buildings] in living, breathing communities.”

Seeing salvaged artifacts from their country in the Toronto museum moved several in the group to tears. “Our schools always organized tours of historical sites like the [now destroyed] Temple of Bel,” says Ramia Alwid, a 31-year-old single mother of five from Aleppo, who fled to Lebanon with her family in 2012, and arrived in Canada in January. “I am happy because my children can still see a glimpse of what I saw.”

At the Aga Khan Museum, visitors can pin a message of hope for Syrians on to Tammam Azzam’s image of a bullet-ridden building in Damascus, superimposed with Gustav Klimt’s painting “The Kiss.”
At the Aga Khan Museum, visitors can pin a message of hope for Syrians on to Tammam Azzam’s image of a bullet-ridden building in Damascus, superimposed with Gustav Klimt’s painting “The Kiss.”
Image: Aga Khan Museum

The exhibition also features works by contemporary Syrian artists such as Tammam Azzam’s image of a bullet-ridden building in Damascus superimposed with Gustav Klimt’s painting The Kiss, which recently went viral. At the Aga Khan Museum, it has been turned into an interactive work inviting visitors to pin a message of hope for Syrians onto the image. “Welcome to Canada where you may rest until you go home,” reads one. “Your beauty and history will rise again soon and we will visit and rejoice with you,” reads another.

The museum will offer free access for Syrian refugees to visit the show until it closes in February. It has also shown screenings of My Dream, My Right, nine short documentaries shot on iPhones by Syrian teenagers living in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan.

Canada’s advance through diversity

An estimated 11 million people have been displaced since the civil war began in Syria. Along with Germany, Canada has been praised as one of the most welcoming countries in the West.

Germany, which has taken in as many as 484,000 Syrian migrants, is also using art to help integrate the new population. The government-supported Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees the city’s museums, is training Syrians to be Arabic language museum guides. While the program has seen a positive response from Syrians, the country as a whole is seeing increased resistance to refugees.

In contrast, Canadian citizens are reacting positively to their Syrian neighbors, according to a national survey conducted by the country’s Environics Institute in October. The study revealed that eight out of 10 Canadians see immigration in a positive light and believe it is good for the economy. More than half of Canadians surveyed are comfortable with the number of Syrians admitted into Canada. Ten percent even said too few Syrians were admitted.

Multiculturalism has been a key part of Canada’s identity since the end of World War II. The country admitted 37,000 Hungarians in 1956, more than 7,000 Ismaili Muslims from Uganda by 1973 and more than 60,000 Vietnamese by 1980. The Syrians are next in line.

“There is a growing sense in this country that our future and one of our strengths is diversity,” says Brault. “And art is a way of both expressing and advancing this.”

When one of the first waves of Syrians arrived last year, several members of the arts community saw them as a gift because of the skills and talent they could offer. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra originally planned to go to the airport to welcome them with a performance but couldn’t due to security constraints. Instead they flew in Syrian composer and clarinetist Kinan Azmeh to record a welcome video for newcomers.

“If you are in your own echo chamber you can’t do anything fresh,” says Adrian Fung, Vice-President for Innovation at Toronto Symphony Orchestra. “We wanted to change the scope of the rhetoric [about Syrians] to talk about the beauty and strength that they bring.”