Today is World Refugee Day, we commemorate the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees. – United Nations

In December 2014, the Ruya Foundation set up a project to provide drawing materials to adult refugees living in the refugee camps of northern Iraq. These emergency camps had been set up in the summer of that year, to accommodate over 1.3 million people fleeing the armed group Islamic State (IS) from neighbouring regions. The project received an overwhelming response within the camps and internationally and there were over 500 drawings submitted by refugees, resulting in the publication of Traces of Survival: Drawings by Refugees in Iraq selected by Ai Weiwei. The proceeds of the sale of this book so far were returned to the refugees in a ceremony in Erbil in January 2017.


From our experience working in Iraq and in the refugee camps, we have seen the positive impact of supporting culture in conflict and crisis zones, both at the local and international level. In the daily lives of the camps, art can play an important role in providing relief but also in communicating in a universal language with the world. Iraq has now the third largest population of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the world. The onslaught of IS in 2014 forced millions to flee their homes, and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that over 3.2 million Iraqis were internally displaced between January 2014 and December 2015. Today, 1.1 million of Iraq’s IDPs continue to live in refugee camps or critical shelter arrangements, according to IOM.

Ruya’s involvement in these camps continues, through regular art workshops in Camp Shariya, the largest camp in the Dohuk area of northern Iraq. Ruya organised an artist residency in the camp for two artists from Ai Weiwei’s studio in June 2015. In February 2016, the artist Francis Alÿs went with Ruya’s Tamara Chalabi on a research trip to the Yezidi shrine of Lalish and the refugee camps of Shariya and Kabarto. The purpose of the visits was for Alÿs to explore the camps and the possibility of creating a work related to the camp and the people living there, in collaboration with the Ruya Foundation

Photo: Akam Shex Hadi/Ruya Foundation.

Camp Shariya is the largest refugee camp in Iraq. At its peak in 2015, it sheltered over 19,000 IDPs of the Yezidi faith, who fled IS in the summer of 2014. Photo: Akam Shex Hadi/Ruya Foundation.

Ruya is working on setting up a permanent art space in Camp Shariya, so that refugees can address their situation and find relief through art. The camp shelters 12,000 inhabitants of the Yezidi community. The Yezidis, an ancient religious minority in Iraq, were subject to brutal attacks in August 2014 by IS and today are struggling to preserve their ancient culture and traditions. Ruya aims to host exhibitions and hold a structured programme of talks, classes and workshops led by local and international artists, including workshops for adult women.

The cultural heritage of Iraq is being destroyed on many levels. By empowering normal people to create culture in the present, we provide them with incentives and hopes for the future. It is essential that we act fast, to focus international attention on what Iraq is producing now–not just on what is being destroyed. We believe we can create a new dialogue between cultures, and communicate the crisis with different voices that will lead to further global understanding.

For more information about the Creativity for Survival project, or to donate, please contact: [email protected]