Violence, destruction, conflict, chaos, tragedy. These are all words that could be used to describe the current crisis in Syria. But, what about the aspects of Syrian culture that go unnoticed amongst the crisis? How can preserving and promoting Syrian culture help to welcome refugees and build connections between people from all backgrounds?
Though the current political situation in Syria is undeniably tragic, an organization based in Montreal, Quebec is working to balance negative images coming out of the country by offering another view. One of rich, diverse cultures full of music, dance and delicacies. La maison de la Syrie or Syrian House is a secular, apolitical, non-profit organization that offers socio-cultural programming as a way to build a sense of togetherness and mutual exchange. It also aims to celebrate and preserve Syrian culture and heritage from the past to the present.
From events like tea salons and book stands to larger scale music events showcasing Syrian talent, the organization provides an opportunity for Syrians from all backgrounds, newcomers to Canada as well as non-Syrians to appreciate and rejoice in a safe space. A space to build social connectedness through encouraging dialogue alongside appreciating culture.
Youssef Shoufan is one of the founders of La maison de la Syrie. He says the organization was created during the rise of the conflict in 2014 in response to people discovering Syria through a negative lens. “We have proved over the last three years of existence, that culture is an excellent vector for dialogue,” he says. Shoufan feels this dialogue changes perceptions of Syria and reduces prejudice as it gives a chance for people to discover what they have in common. “All of this eventually helps create bridges between cultures and a more harmonious society,” he says.
Canada has welcomed close to 30,000 Syrian refugees since late 2014. La maison de la Syrie’s activities assist in overcoming the isolation these newcomers feel when they arrive in their new home country through culture. For instance, this August, the organization will be holding a big arada at Montreal’s Orientalys festival. An arada is a Syrian music and dance celebration described by the organization as a poetic manifestation of collective joy and release. These types of events serve to create a sense of togetherness for attendees from all backgrounds, it also preserves and promotes Syrian culture and heritage.
La maison de la Syrie does not directly work on welcoming efforts, rather, it works on promoting people’s skills and talents locally and using art to fund projects that work with Syrian refugees. “We are now also creating a directory where we will present artists who recently arrived from Syria because even if we acknowledge they need other type of support, we think they can also bring a lot to their new society,” says Shoufan.
La maison de la Syrie offers some complimentary tickets to their paid events, creating access to culture and building social connectedness. New Syrian arrivals to Canada can have a chance to feel connected to each other and other Canadians through music and art – a venue that breaks the cycle of isolation felt by many newcomers to Canada. It also gives Canadians a chance to meet and exchange with their new community members in a joyous environment.
The organization also hosts Art for Syria, a program where people can buy art with proceeds funding projects that build a sense of connectedness for refugees. The money raised so far has supported building playgrounds and facilitating photography workshops in refugee camps in Lebanon and Turkey.
From September 17-24, 2016, La maison de la Syrie will be proudly presenting the first edition of the Syrian Cultures of Montreal festival. If you would like to learn more, the program will be on the organization’s website in August.