Cultural Protection Fund: Bettany Hughes meets Syrian refugees becoming conservators of the future

Cultural Protection Fund: Bettany Hughes meets Syrian refugees becoming conservators of the future


Years of brutal civil war
have ripped Syria apart, with horrific devastation to its historical
and archaeological heritage. Hopeless. No…. No future. Nobody’s looking forward for a future. Your biggest hope is just finding food for your kids, whatever. But now, refugees from the war are coming
together to learn an ancient craft, creating something beautiful and lasting out of the toughest of materials. Their hope, that one day they could
return to their homeland to use the skills of stonemasonry to help rescue their
country’s shattered heritage and rebuild their broken lives. When you build something you start from just a tiny little bit, and this is a tiny little bit. Like so many, I watched the destruction of
homes, lives, and heritage in the war zones of the Middle East with horror and sorrow. These are the lands I love, boasting unique ancient sites like this,
Umm el-Jimal. Just four miles from the
Syrian border in Jordan, built 2,000 years ago out of basalt stone. For centuries, it’s been a
crossroad of cultures from all points of the compass. I’ve been traveling to this
part of the world for years, because I’m drawn here by
the remarkable monuments and stories left behind by some of the most vibrant and
energetic civilizations in human history. But, I’m not just here to investigate history, because heritage sites like these
are in danger across the region. I’ve come to Jordan
because I want to see how, in the desolation of war, the restoration of the past is
bringing rare hope for the future. These are the outskirts of Mafraq. Just over there, there’s a reception centre for refugees. But where I’m heading is
this modest little building. Now, this was originally the home
of the International Medical Corps. But, now it’s a training centre, and there’s something rather
remarkable happening here. These students have been taught
heritage stonemasonry from scratch, thanks to the British Council’s
Cultural Protection Fund, and a project run by the
World Monuments Fund. This has to be one of the most
extraordinary refined craft courses. Most of these students are
dispossessed refugees, women, men, teenagers who’ve lost their homes
and fled Syria with nothing, and now creating architectural triumphs. Learning the skills which could one day help
rebuild their shattered land. And… a third of the students are women, tackling a job which has traditionally
been the preserve of men. For over a year, the project has been overseen
by a powerhouse duo, Bara’a and Nour. I literally have come to see this. I mean, it’s amazing to see because I’m used to looking at
these buildings from the ancient world. So imagining those stonemasons
from the past creating something. So, just explain to me what
exactly is happening here? We have now 45 students, Jordanian and Syrian, male and female, they’re aged from 17 to 40. 17 to 40.
– Yes, 17 to 40, yeah. Actually, no one worked
with stone before. So, none of these people
have ever done this before. No, no. So is the idea that with these skills, when they can go back to Syria, they will be able to work as
stonemasons in the country?
– Yes. Yes. They can go and rebuild
Syrian heritage, and they can work in cultural places, because here we are teaching them
all the Islamic and cultural features, architectural features there. This is such an important project, it feels, because when we hear about Syria, all we hear about is destruction. But here something is being created. Yes. Nour is a trained architectural engineer and teaches the theory, from geometry to conservation
and preservation techniques, while Bara’a is their local project manager. I have to say, it’s so impressive to me that you’re
two women running this project. It’s brilliant. And, also that you have so many
women who are training as stonemasons. Yes, we have 14 women. All women here … it’s a housewife, to rebuild these places, and to rebuild the old cities, like here in old souk. Yes, because that’s Aleppo,
or what used to be. Yes, it’s an old souk in Aleppo. Bara’a says the trips to heritage sites have triggered a passion
for the remnants of the past. All the time the students ask me
why this is stones here, why they built this castle here. They feel something in the heart actually. Yes. – In the heart, because we need
to work in the heritage places, we need to rebuild our countries. I’m told two of the most promising
students are Khadija and Aisha. They both fled from Syria
at the beginning of the war and were forced to reconstruct
their lives here from scratch. At the beginning it was very difficult. We came here with nothing,
it was very difficult. We had worked so hard for years to build
a home and all of a sudden, we had nothing. If we go back to our country, we would
like to restore what was destroyed. We have to restore the historic sites in our country and return it to the way to used to be. In this impoverished area, local Jordanians have
been severely challenged by the crisis at their borders. But here, Jordanians and Syrians have bonded
and become close friends, and Khadija invites Bara’a, Nour,
and me for a girl power lunch. Khadija and her young family
fled from Homs in Syria with nothing at all except a few treasured photos
of happier times at the home they lost. That’s the only thing you brought with you? Just that – even our clothes we had to leave. I left everything behind, I just came here
with my husband and my children. God willing, if there is any chance
at all of going home one day, I will, any chance at all, I will do it. It seems to me, ladies,
that in a way, you’re making history, because it was very unusual for
there to be female stonemasons. It must make you feel very proud
of what you’ve been doing. I’m proud of all our women, the Syrian and Jordanian both. Stonemasonry is hard work, it needs a
lot of physical effort and a lot of mental effort. Women have proved they can do anything,
even as sculptors. God willing. Thank you. A number of the students tell me that stonemasonry has a therapeutic effect, that it gives order and
structure to your day, that the sound of the chisels is hypnotic. The work becomes the sole centre
of your attention. Some become completely
absorbed in the work, as if they’re able to lose
themselves for a time. Working stone connects us
to our ancestors and to the skills and experiences of others from different ages
and different places. For people who’ve had almost
everything taken from them, but have time, it’s also a way of connecting to the future, because stonemasonry crafts a kind of immortality. Both for yourself and for your works. Hamza is from Damascus and came here in his early teens. He’s become particularly
skilled in calligraphy, spending hours carefully carving
Arabic scripts into the finished stone. What does the second word say? Allah? Bismillah – God the merciful.
– The merciful, yeah. Do you find when you’re
doing this kind of thing, that you feel connected to the craftsmen and stonemasons who would’ve done this 500 years ago? Exactly, yeah. When you look at those
things that they built, they’re so beautiful,
so amazing to look at. They did it with their hands, so that’s just … thinking about that is- Yeah.
– …amazing. Amazing. The process of creating something
absolutely beautiful, something that you can
enjoy looking at, can be proud of, that’s the beginning of the process
of overcoming something, overcoming something that
happened to you in the past, trying to do something new. No one at the school
is under any illusion about the scale of the task ahead. This is a video shown to students. Just one terrible example of war damage
to Syria’s historic monuments. By the use of drones and 3D scanners, archaeologists have revealed
the devastation to Beit Ghazaleh, one of the largest Ottoman-era palaces in Aleppo. The skills taught at the
stonemasonry course in Jordan could rebuild and restore every architectural feature of
this palace and others like it. Perhaps, just perhaps, this offers a glimmer of hope. The lack of skilled stonemasons
is a serious cultural threat. After the civil war in Lebanon,
for instance, many of the historic buildings
that were damaged were simply bulldozed away. There’s a very real possibility that
that might well happen in Syria too. Which is why this scheme,
it feels to me, is fighting the cause of the past,
the present, and the future. In the end, it’s not just about art, but about love. Love for archaeology,
for the legacy of the past, and the power of culture
to bring people together, helping to find direction for the future, and to heal the wounds of the past.

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