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Refugees transform walls into works of art

As part of a community-led project, Iranians and Afghan refugees clean up their Saadi neighbourhood in Shiraz, Iran. © UNHCR/Samar Maleki

As part of a community-led project, Iranians and Afghan refugees clean up their Saadi neighbourhood in Shiraz, Iran. © UNHCR/Samar Maleki

SAADI, Iran – Until recently, discriminating graffiti and widespread rubbish problems fuelled social tensions between Iranians and Afghans in the Saadi neighbourhood of Shiraz, Iran. Now, thanks to UNHCR and the Government of Iran, refugees and the local community have come together to transform the area with colourful works of art.

Like much of Iran, the Saadi neighbourhood in Shiraz is home to a large population of Afghan refugees. Public health and hygiene hazards divided its community before the clean-up project began. “It had become custom for Afghans and Iranians to blame each other—erbally and through graffiti and hate slogans—for the problems they saw around them,” recalls Alex Kishara, Head of UNHCR’s Sub-Office in Shiraz.

Hoping to empower residents, UNHCR and the Government of Iran brought together local artists and over 60 community volunteers to design and implement a ‘clean-up and paint-up’ project.

“It had become custom for Afghans and Iranians to blame each other for the problems they saw around them.”

The community set to work litter-picking and transforming the hate slogan-ridden walls into striking, colourful murals of art. Two artists—one Iranian, one Afghan—and five art students worked with the children to design and apply the patterns, offering artistic guidance during a week of painting.

Hate slogans and graffiti were soon replaced by skilfully decorated murals of Iranian and Afghan carpets, as well as other motifs symbolizing shared harmony. One participant, 13-year-old Alireza, painted his favourite mural, portraying a large tree with splayed branches next to a text in Farsi that read: ‘The sons of Adam are limbs of each other, having been created from one essence’.

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The project has instilled a new sense of community between Afghans and Iranians. © UNHCR/Samar Maleki

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A group of local volunteers take a break next to their wall murals. © UNHCR/Samar Maleki

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Public health and hygiene hazards divided the Saadi community before the clean-up project began. © UNHCR/Samar Maleki

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Hate slogans and graffiti are replaced by skilfully-decorated murals. © UNHCR/Samar Maleki

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Paint pots line the streets of Saadi. © UNHCR/Samar Maleki

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The Saadi neighbourhood is home to a large population of Afghan refugees. © UNHCR/Samar Maleki

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Beautiful murals now adorn the walls of the Saadi community. © UNHCR/Samar Maleki

An Iranian volunteer also offered face-painting and free medical check-ups were provided by an Afghan physician.

While some community members initially showed scepticism and criticised the project as “doomed to fail” or “a waste of time and money”, the murals elicited so much interest that soon many people joined in. “More painting equipment had to be purchased, as many of the initially hesitant residents and landlords were soon keen to participate and see their own walls painted,” says Mr Sharifi, an Afghan artist and designer.

The project instilled a new sense of community between Afghans and Iranians. Those who didn’t participate directly in the painting came to the streets to offer refreshments and food to the volunteers. “What is a good city?” said Alireza, during one of the focus group discussions that took place with children during the week. “A good city is made of good citizens”.

“What is a good city? A good city is made of good citizens.”

The project also alleviated some protection concerns. One recently orphaned Afghan, a 13-year-old boy named Mohammad, who had returned to Saadi after falling out with his siblings, became involved in the project thanks to the support of a youth initiative and UNHCR assistance. Mohammed showed such creative talent that his skills were noted by Mr Sharifi and he has now been granted free enrolment at the Sepid Institute of Art.

Iran has shown great generosity in hosting almost 1 million refugees during a protracted refugee situation of almost 40 years. With the support of its government and UNHCR, community-led projects like this one will continue to lead the way.

By: Leah Cowan