When the British Government set up the Cultural Protection Fund a year ago to support people and heritage in war-torn areas of the world, we at World Monuments Fund looked at how our expertise could make the biggest impact. Three issues were at the top of our minds: firstly, the extraordinary monumental heritage of Iraq and Syria, which was under threat of damage by Isis, or caught in the cross-fire of opposing armies. The ancient souk of Aleppo, the Al-Hadba’ minaret in Mosul, or countless other architectural and archaeological wonders will need urgent conservation after the dust of conflict settles.
Secondly, our experience in other war-torn areas is that future conservation will be severely hampered by a lack of specialist skills on the ground. This is about people: the depletion of a professional cadre of craftspeople and professionals because they have fled or worse, or because there is no network to train or support them. Yes, it would be entirely possible to bring in international teams to do the work, but this does nothing for the long term, when those experts leave.
Finally, there are large numbers of refugees scattered across the middle east. The refugee camp of Zataari in Jordan, near Mafraq is home to 80,000 people who simply were not there five years ago. There are similar numbers living in and around the town itself. These are people who are waiting, lives on hold, looking desperately to the future.
How we are helping
Our project puts these three problems together – imagine the centre of a Venn diagram – and turns them into a simple, practical and human solution. Train refugees to become the craftsmen and conservators of the future. Give them a skill – in this case stone-masonry – which we know will be needed to help restore a nation’s heritage. This is not just about learning a new skill, but about restoring pride and offering hope.
The first students walked through the door of conservation stonemasonry training centre opened in Marfaq in September. With the support of the British Council, which coordinates the Cultural Protection Fund, and our local partner, The Petra National Trust, we plan to train over thirty people over the next year. Most are Syrian refugees, but some are Jordanian locals – it is important to acknowledge that all aspects of local society are impacted by the seismic changes brought about by the war. We were also interested in addressing a gender balance in a male-dominated craft, so we were delighted to recruit fourteen women to take part in the course, and to help run it.
A brighter future
The initiative is not just about stonemasonry training: we are also interested in engaging the next generation in their local heritage, seeking to foster a shared appreciation of its importance and inspiring future advocates to care. Over the coming year, 120 school children will enjoy exploring some of the important sites that sit on their doorstep.
We’ve only just started and the initiative, a pilot, will conclude next autumn. But the early signs are encouraging. Actions speak and the weekly pictures sent from Jordan say even more. The benefits of heritage are multi-fold: it can help build pride, understanding and tolerance; it can be a driver for tourism and regeneration, a major contributor to local character, spirit of place and quality of life. And here, in some of the most difficult circumstances, it also offers hope….