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Dublin: 20 °C Friday 7 August, 2020
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Lesvos project: 'Art is the perfect way to connect with locals. It breaks down any barriers'

Thousands of refugees are crammed in squalid conditions on this Aegean island. One Irishman travelled to Lesvos to paint murals and raise awareness.

Mark Leonard

AFTER 24 HOURS on Lesvos we had our permission pulled by local officials and our spray paint lost somewhere in a cloud of UN containers.

With our original aim of painting positive murals in the heart of the refugee crisis slowly slipping away, we were left with only one option, head to the local hardware store and search for a blank space to make our mark.

We teamed up with one of the world’s leading street artists, Ben Eine, to paint some vibrant statements in the core of the ongoing refugee crisis, to inspire hope for those at the centre. Eine’s work is admired everywhere from The White House to Bangkok so we hoped his bright and colourful letters would brighten up the gloomy camps in Greece.

Mytilini compassion

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Touching down in Mytilini means sharing the streets with 20,000 locals who have welcomed more than 170,000 refugees over the last two years. The local community’s empathy has resulted in a well-deserved Nobel Peace Prize nomination.

Their compassionate reaction to those who fled war and poverty, to arrive in rafts at the gates of Europe, is nothing short of inspiring. Refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond are cared for in various camps around Lesvos. These camps are now their humble homes for the foreseeable future.

A rough start to our project

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Our project kicked off to a rough start, with plans going to pieces after recent unrest causing everyone to be a little cautious and scattered. Our paint was on the missing list and our permission was pulled, so we gathered what we could in a local hardware store and looked for inspiration.

Ben Eine’s undeniable ability to capture an atmosphere in a single statement was witnessed by volunteers and refugees alike. He began to paint the outline of “Freedom” as onlookers whispered “Liberté” with enthusiasm.

They shared stories of their experience of the camp and how their dream of freedom was within reach. Their appreciation and admiration for Ben Eine’s work was evident as crowds gathered to gaze at the artwork.

Capturing the dream

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Ben Eine’s devotion to the project pushed us to search for another spot so he could paint “The Dream” to capture people’s pursuit of a better life.

The Lesvos Project came to a close with the children and volunteers of Kara Tepe Camp taking control. They put their own twist on Eine’s iconic “Love” piece in a newly developed common area of the camp. Needless to say, structure and style went out the window while bombing and tagging became the standard.

Children were standing on chairs to write their names higher than their friends. They were covered from head to toe in every colour of the Montana range. For a brief moment, nobody was stressing and kids were being kids.

Breaking down barriers with art

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We left with an undeniable respect for the people of Greece and the team of volunteers who work tirelessly to help anyone who lands there looking for support.

I’ve been travelling to remote spots around the world for the last 10 years and I realised that art was the perfect way to connect with locals. It breaks down any barriers and brings out the best in everyone.

Art aid

So, I set up Apartial with my brother, Stephen Leonard, to connect with creatives so we could share some of their work and bring art to the people that need it most.

Now, we’re focusing on nonprofit art projects to raise aid and awareness for some of the world’s biggest issues. It all started as a small side-project but it has quickly gathered momentum since our first project in Liberia after the Ebola crisis.

We’ll head to Uganda in April to draw attention to the their revolutionary approach to caring for South Sudanese refugees who are fleeing a country on the brink of genocide.

Hopefully we can shed some light on the issue, support the people at the centre of the crisis and inspire others to rethink their treatment of refugees. More information can be found at www.apartial.com.

Mark Leonard is the Co-Founder of Apartial, a Dublin based platform for creatives.

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Mark Leonard

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