Little children were seen playing with colours on a huge piece of cloth and Joel Bergner was encouraging them. The New York-based muralist and educator decided to leave the comfort of the first world many years ago, as he visited different parts of the globe in order to create large-scale works of art with the participation of young people and communities. He arrived in Bangladesh in the last week of May after spending a couple of weeks in India.
Bergner started his journey five years ago. He co-founded the non-profit organisation, Artolution, with his friend Max Levi Frieder in 2013 mainly to organise community-based public art initiatives with people who have experienced armed conflict, trauma and social marginalisation. After leading multiple projects with Syrian children in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan and Palestinian children in West Bank, Bergner reached Bangladesh. Upon his arrival in Dhaka, he went straight to Rohingya refugee camps in Teknaf near Cox’s Bazar and tried to feel their pain. Surely, the painter has found some similarities between the Myanmarese Rohingyas and the Syrian refugees…..
Talking to the local media, the American street artist said that there are some similarities. “The Rohingya crisis is completely different. For Rohingyas, it isn’t possible to live in their own country. On the contrary, the situation was normal in Syria before the Civil War. But, the Rohingyas’ living condition was horrible in Myanmar. They are in far better condition in refugee camps in neighbouring countries. Many of them don’t want to return,” stressed Bergner.
According to Bergner, some Rohingya refugees will return to Myanmar only if the government in Naypyidaw ensures they will enjoy ‘freedom’. They also want the UN forces to facilitate their ‘safe’ return and the Myanmarese government to rebuild their homes destroyed by the Armed Forces. However, they know that the government will never accept their demands, stressed the painter. He further said: “I am not an expert. But, I know that it’s not possible for them to return to Maynamar. They also can’t permanently settle in Bangladesh. They have no place in this world.” The Rohingya kids’ interest in painting surprised Bergner, who trains eight artists (four males and four females).
The refugee camp in Jordan, visited by Bergner, was situated near a desert. However, the tidal range at the Teknaf coastal area is strongly influenced by the Naaf River estuary. The arrival of monsoon has started creating problems for the Rohingyas, as heavy rainfalls have damaged their camps made of mud and bamboos. “People panic. They are using sand bags to protect their camps. The situation will get worse,” insisted Bergner.
The muralist, recently blessed with a baby girl, becomes a friend of Rohingya kids. He said that Rohingya kids are like Syrian children, who love to make friends. It’s unfortunate that they have lost their loved ones and are forced to leave their motherlands. Still, they love to sing, paint and dance, added Bergner. Many of them shared their dreams with their ‘uncle’. They want to become doctors, teachers, globe-trotters and to work for freedom and peace.
Bergner has learnt few Bengali words, although some kids know English. “I don’t torment them with more questions… after all, I’m not a journalist,” said the painter. At workshops (to increase efficiency), he is only a friend.
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