Since Words Have Failed, Maybe Art Can Make Us Empathize With Refugees

Two projects try to break through the statistics and bring home the human pain of the crisis.

In New York City last month, hundreds of life jackets “washed up” onto the shore at Pebble Beach at Brooklyn Bridge Park. In a re-creation of an increasingly common scene in Europe, the beach was littered with neon orange nylon vests, more of its pebbles covered than not.

[Photo: OXFAM/Darren Ornitz]

“These life jackets illustrate just one of the many dangerous routes that people take in search of safety and dignity,” says Josephine Liebl, Oxfam’s policy lead on the global migration crisis, who helped organize the installation in partnership with Greek nonprofit Odyssea and London production company Snappin’ Turtles.

The life jackets in this installation weren’t purchased from the nearest outdoor goods store, but sourced from the beaches of Chios, Greece, discarded there by real-life refugees who survived the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. More than 55,000 life jackets have been found on the island to date (and another 100,000 have been found nearby on the white sands of Samos and Lesvos).

[Photo: Oxfam/Darren Ornitz]

“Saving lives and upholding the human rights of all people on the move must be a priority for all governments,” says Liebl. “Sixty-five million people–the largest number since records began–have now been forced to flee their homes due to conflict, violence, and persecution.”

Among these 65 million displaced people in the world are 21.3 million refugees. More than half are children under the age of 18.

“These children have no fault–they’re victims,” street artist Hani Shihada tells Co.Exist. “They didn’t instigate anything; they didn’t choose to be in the war. They are totally innocent. They don’t deserve suffering; they deserve a chance. They need hope, peace, love–like all children in the world.”

The artist teamed up with Matter Unlimited and World Vision to drive that point home. Shihada, famous for his 3D sidewalk masterpieces, was commissioned to produce a piece that spoke to the plight of children in this struggle. The piece, which depicts two dozen children trapped behind a wire fence, was plastered on the sides of five trucks, which on the same day in September drove through New York, as well as London, Dublin, Seoul, and Auckland.


“This scene is very common. These fences, these children really exist,” says Shihada, who found inspiration for the work on the internet from photos taken in Turkey and France, but also from his own life. Shihada is painfully familiar with the struggle: He grew up as a refugee, a Palestinian in Jordan, and has a certificate to prove it.

“The piece touches me, deeply, because I remember my childhood,” says Shihada. “I was lucky. I was really lucky. The things, the scenes, I saw when I was eight years old are still present in my mind. I feel so much for these children, and I know that suffering will be with them forever. That experience never goes away.

“The piece is about me, but it’s about us–it’s about everybody. We are all interconnected. These children could be our children, they could be us. The more people understand, the more they can relate and help and take a stand–a humanitarian stand.”

This stunt, as Matter Unlimited CEO Rob Holzer called it, generated a warm reaction around the world. Photos and event promotion generated more than 10 million same-day impressions on Twitter and an accompanying video attracted more than 50,000 views. “Even with something small like this, I do think that’s the power of the art itself–something unexpected, seemed to resonate,” Holzer tells Co.Exist.

While the life jackets seen on Pebble Beach have since been shipped to the U.K. for use in refugee advocacy efforts led by Oxfam affiliates across Europe, Matter Unlimited and World Vision are still in discussions about where Shihada’s artwork will live going forward.

Now, as far as the artist is concerned, the more people who can see his work–and pieces like it–the better. He believes that art can foster greater empathy for refugees and inspire more action beyond basic humanitarian aid.


And Shihada is right. So much has been written about this crisis, the largest in more than half a century, even on this website, yet the reaction to refugees everywhere is, overwhelmingly, fear and distrust.

[Photo: Oxfam/Darren Ornitz]

That’s a misguided, even toxic, assessment of people in need. And with 34,000 people being forcibly displaced every day because of conflict or persecution, the clock is ticking on an appropriate response.

“These children are not going to stay children, they will grow” says Shihada. “And soon they are going to be very angry. And if you treat them like an enemy, they will be an enemy, but if you treat them like family, they will be family.

“If we don’t treat them now, help them now, we’ll all pay the price.”

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About the author

John Converse Townsend covers smart solutions to social problems, as a writer and social media producer for Fast Company. He likes: black coffee, Paul Pogba, and long runs