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Art installation turns garbage into advocacy for Syrian refugees

Posted on: December 15, 2015 3:55 PM
Issam Kourbaj's "Another Day Lost", installed at Trinity Church Wall Street as part of its "Art as Advocacy" project, aims to draw attention to the continuing plight of refugees from Syria
Photo Credit: Trinity Church Wall Street

[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] An art installation at Trinity Church, Wall Street, New York, is using waste materials to invoke images of refugee camps in an attempt to “foster awareness and spur greater relief efforts on the part of citizens and governments worldwide” for Syrian refugees.

The installation, Another Day Lost, has been installed in the churchyard and parish centre as part Trinity Wall Street’s art-as-advocacy project. It has been created by UK-based Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj, and is inspired by aerial photographs of refugee camps.

“During Advent, the Syrian refugee crisis visualized so powerfully in Another Day Lost takes on even greater meaning,” the Rector of Trinity, the Revd Dr William Lupfer, said. “We remember that the baby Jesus becomes a refugee when He and His family are forced to flee to neighbouring Egypt.

“This year, as we embark on the remembrance of His birth, let us celebrate Him by working together to welcome and embrace those in need of sanctuary today.”

Quoting figures from the UNHCR, a Trinity Wall Street spokesperson said that “the world is in the midst of the largest forced global displacement since World War II. More than four million are escaping the civil war in Syria, where protests that began in the Arab Spring of 2011 have grown into full-scale, unrelenting violent conflict.

“Half the country’s pre-war population – more than 11 million people – have already been killed or forced to flee their homes. Yet from 1 January to 30 November 2015, the United States accepted 1,955 migrants from Syria, according to the State Department’s Refugee Processing Centre.

The Episcopal Church has been vocal in its efforts to encourage the United States to accept greater numbers of Syrian refugees, so that “no person legitimately seeking safe haven in this country is refused,” Trinity said.

“Visitors to the installation will find action steps through links to campaigns to support refugees. Trinity Church Wall Street is engaging parishioners and visitors in an effort to open this country’s doors wider to those fleeing oppression, beginning with this installation and support of projects providing services to refugees in camps near the Syrian border.

“For over three centuries, Trinity Church Wall Street has advocated for social justice. In 1709, it founded a free school, the Trinity Charity School, which became the model for New York City public schools.

“The following century, with New York’s Manumission Society, Trinity funded the African Free School in Manhattan. In contemporary times, Trinity was a leader in the Episcopal Church’s efforts to divest from South African companies during the anti-apartheid movement, and was instrumental in providing essential communications technology that enabled South African clergy to circumvent government censorship and communicate the horrors of apartheid to the outside world.

Another Day Lost offers a sombre perspective on the human cost of the Syrian civil war,” Trinity’s director of justice and reconciliation, the Revd Winnie Varghese, said. “Though far away, we cannot stand by at a time when worldwide, we are faced with a desperate humanitarian crisis. Growing numbers of people need asylum. In global partnership, we must find ways to welcome the stranger to our midst.”

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The installation in Trinity’s churchyard is housed within a tent, much like those used by Syrian refugees, and is constructed from waste materials such as medicine packaging and discarded books. It has arrived in New York from display in London in the Summer.

“As one of the visitors in London commented: ‘Waste materials portraying wasted lives,’” Trinity said. “The overall appearance is that of a refugee camp, made out of thousands of tiny paper and cardboard tents, some of which are marked with Kourbaj’s distinctive black lines which are based on Arabic calligraphy and traditional mourning ribbons, and encircled with a fence of burnt matches.

“The used, redundant matches reference not only the irreversible changes in everyday Syrian life but also the loss of thousands of lives. Matches are arranged in tally marks, which enumerate the number of days that have passed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, and one match will be added to the artwork for each day while the conflict continues.”

Another Day Lost is an archive of loss and remembrance, not of the distant past, but of the very painful present; a present of lasting scars, abandoned humans and cities turned to dust. More than 1,730 days have passed since the Syrian uprising, and the count goes on,” Issam Kourbaj said.

“Tragically, millions of Syrians are still uprooted, displaced and orphaned and many are becoming citizens of a tent. I am truly touched by Trinity Wall Street hosting my fragile installation of scattered ‘tents’ and flimsy paper ‘camp’ – as a contemplative moment standing in the Trinity churchyard, among the skyscrapers of the financial district, and in whispering distance of the 9/11 Memorial.”

Another Day Lost opened for viewing on Sunday and will remain at Trinity until 5 January 2016. Admission is free. For opening hours see the Trinity Church Wall Street website.