A small group of children in Gaza sit on a lavender and white blanket around a small tray of beverages, singing “Happy Birthday” to a young girl. Like kids her age around the world, she wears a sweatshirt with prints of Elsa and Anna, characters from “Frozen”; unlike most kids, she’s celebrating against a backdrop of a war that, according to United Nations estimates as of Nov. 10, 2023, has already killed more than 4,500 Palestinian children.
Celebrating anything might seem odd or even inappropriate in the face of so much devastation – and in the middle of what many are calling genocide.
However, in the research of refugees that I’ve conducted with interdisciplinary artist and scholar Devora Neumark, we’ve found that the urge to beautify one’s surroundings is widespread and profoundly beneficial – particularly so in the harrowing circumstances of loss, displacement and danger.
When people find themselves displaced from their homes, finding or creating beauty can be just as vital as food, water and shelter.
Over half crowd into some type of emergency shelter, while others squeeze into relatives’ and neighbors’ homes. Food is scarce and increasingly expensive. According to the U.N., people are getting only 3% of the water they need each day. Much of the water they do have is polluted.
Crops are dying. Moms are not producing breast milk. People are getting sick. There are severe shortages of baby formula, as well as anesthesia for those needing surgery. The lack of space and overwhelming stress and fear add sleep to the list of things that are hard to come by.
These needs are urgent and essential. Without them people will die. Too many already have, while the conditions for those who live are horrific. They make it hard to see much else.
Beauty is often viewed as a luxury. But this isn’t the case. It’s the opposite.
A human impulse
Beauty has been a hallmark of every human civilization. Art philosopher Arthur Danto wrote that beauty, while optional for art, is not an option for life. Neuroscientists have shown that our brains are biologically wired for beauty: The neural mechanisms that influence attention and perception have adapted to notice color, form, proportion and pattern.
We’ve found that refugees worldwide, often with limited or no legal rights, still invest considerable effort in beautifying their surroundings. Whether they’re staying in shelters or makeshift apartments, they paint walls, hang pictures, add wallpaper and carpet the floors. They transform plain and seemingly temporary accommodations into personalized spaces – into semblances of home.
Refugees rearrange spaces to share meals, celebrate holidays and host parties – to greet friends, hold dances and say goodbyes. They burn incense, serve tea in decorative porcelain and recite prayers on ornate mats. These simple acts carry profound significance, even amid challenges.
Urban studies scholars Layla Zibar, Nurhan Abujidi and Bruno de Meulder have told the story of Um Ibrahim, a Syrian refugee. When she was pregnant, she and her husband transformed the tent they were issued at a refugee camp in the Kurdistan region of Iraq into home. They built brick walls. She planned paint colors and furniture. Around her, neighbors potted plants and set up chairs to create front porches on their temporary shelters to be able to gather with friends. They turned roads into places for celebrating special occasions. They painted a flag at the entrance of the camp.
They made a new home, but they also made it feel like it “used to in Syria.”
Creating hope in a hopeless place
The benefits of beauty are both practical and transformative, especially for refugees.
Simple acts – rearranging a home, sweeping the floor or intentionally placing an object – allow refugees to infuse an area with their own identity and taste. They provide a way to cope when one has little control over anything else. Often, once someone is labeled a refugee, all their other identities are overshadowed or disappear.
Devora Neumark’s study of over 200 individuals who experienced forced displacement found that beautifying the home helped heal intergenerational trauma caused by forced displacement.
Neumark observed that as children participated in efforts to beautify their home, it seemed to positively influence their own coping mechanisms and well-being.
Furthermore, if children could imagine their homes prior to displacement through the stories and images shared with them – what scholar Marianne Hirsch calls “postmemories” – then the actions taken to beautify their present-day homes could be transformative. They served as a bridge connecting the past with the present and facilitated the ongoing process of healing and preserving identity.
Ultimately, making a space feel more comfortable, secure and personalized is a tangible expression of hope for a future.
Cultivating love and life
Even prior to the start of the Israel-Hamas war, Palestinians lived in the face of immense injustice and violence.
Our Palestinian research partner, who must remain anonymous for security reasons, described that their home in the refugee camp feels like living in jail, but that they still make it a beautiful place to live.
Prior to the start of the latest war, neighborhoods featured striking murals and embellished walls. Intricate mosaics adorned buildings, and paint livened the facades of homes. Neighbors would gather to pray, putting on new clothes, spraying perfume and burning incense to prepare for the rituals. As Christmas approached, Palestinian Christians, along with some Muslims, would decorate their homes. Both faiths would gather for annual tree lightings.
Geographer David Marshall described how youth living in a Palestinian refugee camp used beauty to focus on the positives in their environment and dream about a future beyond their camp – and the walls that constrained their lives.
In our community-based storytelling project in a Palestinian refugee camp this past summer, we witnessed the commitment to making homes beautiful in the thriving gardens that were created within very crowded quarters. Neighbors shared how their gardens calm them, provide a place to gather with friends and serve as a reminder of fields they once tended.
In her 2021 research, Corinne Van Emmerick, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology, described Fatena, a Palestinian who was living in a refugee camp. She had flowers on everything – the roof, walls and windowsills. They were expensive and needed “lots of love.” But, Fatena added, they gave her “love back.”
A form of resistance and resilience
One Guinean refugee interviewed as part of Neumark’s study said, “As refugees we lose our sense of beauty, and when that happens, we lose our sense of everything, of life itself.”
If the opposite of this is true, then clearly beauty cannot be thought of as superficial or an afterthought. One study of Bosnian refugees found that their ability to notice beauty was a sign of improved mental health.
Creating, witnessing and experiencing beauty offers a connection to the familiar, works to preserve cultural identity and fosters belonging.
It’s what ensures that a little girl in Gaza not only has her birthday celebrated, but that it is also made as beautiful as possible.
Devora Neumark, an interdisciplinary artist and researcher whose trauma-informed work explores the intersections between a home beautification and the human experience in the context of displacement, contributed to writing this article.