Artist Measures Days Lost in the Lives of Syrian Refugees

In one of two tents outside of Trinity Church, artist Issam Kourbaj lights another match, signifying one more "lost" day in the lives of Syrian refugees. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Dec. 23, 2015

Just inside the gates of Trinity Church on Broadway stand two tents, small structures not unlike those that now shelter Syrian refugees by the tens of thousands. Each day, Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj kneels down, lights a wooden match and briefly lets it burn. Then, gently, he adds it to a growing collection, the artist’s way of marking the tragedy of Another Day Lost, the title of his three-week installation now on view.

“Today, there’s 1,745 days,” the artist says of the time passed since the start of the Syrian civil war. It is Dec. 22.

On the floor of one tent, the matches are placed in a widening spiral, with a tiny symbolic tent at the center. Kourbaj wonders out loud what it might represent. “Is it one person? Is it one family? Is it one city? Is it one country?

In the other tent, the matches form the perimeter of a miniature tent city, a hodgepodge of hundreds of tiny tents made of cardboard scraps. The idea came to him last year, after he was approached to develop a new work for Shubbak, the London festival of contemporary Arab culture. He was struck by an aerial photo of a Syrian refugee camp.

“It was really very powerful—the size of the tents, the repetition of the tents,” the London-based artist says. A central question surfaced for him: What is home? With that in mind, he decided to create an installation of a refugee camp spanning multiple sites across London to mirror the actual geography of the camps.

For more than two years, Kourbaj has dedicated his work to the Syrian crisis. In July 2015, Another Day Lost opened in London, and soon caught the eye of the Rev. Winnie Varghese of Trinity Wall Street. Varghese had just moved to Trinity from her position as rector at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery.

“My first thought was: I wish I was in the church I used to be in, so I could bring him,” she says. “St. Marks is known for art. That’s part of who they are.”

But Trinity’s leadership responded favorably. “The rector [Rev. Dr. William Lupfer] specifically, like all of us, was so moved by pictures we've seen all summer of refugees...he wanted us to respond.”

“They sent me the invitation and I am delighted that it made it to this side of the world,” Kourbaj says of his project. At first, Trinity just wanted a tent outside, he says. “I suggested I really wanted something internal – a nice conversation between the inside and the outside.”

During the holidays, though, it would be impossible to find extra space inside the church. “They said, ‘sorry, we don’t have enough space inside, but we have a center.’”

So the installation expanded across Rector street to the ground floor of Trinity’s Parish Center, a public space and unofficial staff break room with an open-door policy during most days and frequent visits by local workers and students. With the help of Jennifer Chinn, Trinity’s Hospitality Development Manager, Kourbaj enlisted everybody he could, including church employees and visitors, in burning the matches and building the miniature tents that adorn the walls.

“People will have their lunch, and then jump in and make a few tents,” Chinn says. She enjoys building the small boxes that represent refugees tents. “Once you get the hang of it, its very meditative. You get into a real groove with it.”

Chinn says that the hands-on artwork has successfully engaged visitors in the Syrian refugee crisis. “Sometimes people are frozen by hopelessness, so finding ways for people to feel hopeful again can pull people back into the conversation.”

“This is a community center; we needed to involve everybody,” says Kourbaj, motioning to the Center’s walls, now covered in miniature tents and rows of burnt matches.

Varghese, Chinn and Kourbaj all agreed that they were unsure what to expect following the wave of anti-Syrian refugee sentiment splashing across the media in early December. All of a sudden, the stakes seemed higher.

“The first couple of days, I really braced myself ready to hear something hard,” Varghese says.

Instead, she saw that people were grateful for the work. “It restored my own sense of the goodness and compassion of the people around us. I was glad to be wrong.”

Kourbaj agrees, saying the public reaction has been “incredibly kind, incredibly thoughtful.” People have been generous. He’s even been invited to the theater by a total stranger—an Arabic-speaking Jewish man.  

“People are captivated,” Chinn says of Kourbaj’s work. “He’s just been a gift to have around.”

“I would love the conflict to finish and for this to be the last edition,” he says of Another Day Lost, sounding both sad and doubtful. But for now, it’s slated to return to London next year.

Another Day Lost is on view at Trinity Wall Street, Broadway at Wall Street, until Jan. 5, 2016. The Parish Center, 2 Rector St., is open to the public weekdays from 12 to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.