Syrian refugee children sell roses or collect scrap metal on the streets of Beirut. They sacrifice their futures to ensure their families' survival.
A thick layer of dust and rubble covers the once vibrant country of Syria. Almost every features has been marked by the war. Even though artist Diala Brisly experienced loss and tragedy of her own, she refuses to give up her hope for the Syrians. She uses her art to encourage children to turn away from the battles and mix a new colour palette for their futures.
A small girl stands in the foreground. Behind her a boy spreads his arms out like a shield as she imitates his movements with one arm. It almost looks like both have wings, as if they are poised for flight. The girl closes her eyes, smiles. Something is keeping the children from taking to the sky though: they have been injured. The girl rests one arm on a crutch; her leg is a prosthesis. The boy is missing his right hand.
The painting is entitled: “Be my leg – I’ll be your arm”. Artist Diala Brisly painted it after her brother was killed by a landmine in Syria. She felt responsible – and still does today. “I was very, very sad,” Diala recalls, “but deep inside I felt that now, I have something in common with the Syrians who have lost their families. Everyone is losing, so we have to help each other with what we have. I have my art. That is what I can offer and what I do. We have to stick together and be like one body.” Alone each of the children is injured, weakened. But together they are strong, working in unison like the limbs of one body.
The war in Syria alone has affected 7.5 million children.
Children are the most at risk in conflict and war. They are subjected to physical and psychological threats, like recruitment as child soldiers, sexual assault, forced marriage, and endless hours of hard, physical labour in order to earn enough money to survive. The numbers of children affected are shocking. Of the around 60 million people currently living as refugees, the UNHCR estimates that over half are minors. The war in Syria alone has affected 7.5 million children.
Diala fled with her family from Kuwait to Syria at the tender age of ten. Damascus became her new home. When she talks about her childhood, an almost imperceptible smile plays across her face: “I feel like I belonged to that place. I really liked those days and I have so many memories of my friends. It was my home. Of course there were some bad memories too. Mostly because my parents used to fight a lot – like most parents in the world. I don’t know what’s wrong with them!” Then silence falls. Her Syria is not a bombed-out country. It is her home, the place of her family and friends.
However, over times the face of Syria has changed. Criticising the regime is inherently dangerous. A singer who penned a song that became the hymn of the protest movement, Ibrahim Qashoush, was found murdered, his vocal chords cut, in 2011. Many artists today fear a similar fate. However, this has not silenced the voice of the protest. Most of Diala’s work is dedicated to children but political and humanitarian messages are constantly found in her art too. Exactly one year after a graffiti caused the gruesome arrest and interrogation of 15 school children, she publicised a painting. It showed the pupils’ mutilated hands with torn-off fingernails and memorialised why Syrians had initially taken to the streets: to fight the despotism that does not even spare the weakest. Most reactions to this painting came from Syrians who supported her. But others chose to ignore her social critique and turned away from her.
When her actions became too risky, Diala ultimately fled Syria in 2013. She is still a household name there today, especially among children. She is one of the artists behind the “Zaiton & Zaitonah” magazine (which means Olive and Oliver) that is still being distributed in Syria. These are the only spots of colour some children ever get to see amidst the destruction of war. Publishing the magazine is dangerous, since it is printed in Aleppo. Both IS and Assad’s followers have banned its distribution, even though it is a magazine for children. Amid the many checkpoints and battles, it can be difficult or impossible to get the magazine out. Sometimes it is smuggled out of the city on motor scooters. “It is not easy, but the people involved are really amazing and even stay to do this while everyone is fighting.”
“When you go to refugee camps, there is no colour at all. Even the kids’ clothes (…) lose their entire colour.”
Today Diala lives in Beirut where she works with young Syrian refugees. She holds workshops and helps them process their experience through art. Seeing the joy a mural she was working on brought children in a refugee camp gave her an idea. It seemed to her that the grey walls of the refugee tents were in desperate need of colour. “Usually when you go to refugee camps, there is no colour at all. Even the kids’ clothes – because they play in the sun all day – lose their entire colour. I saw their reaction when they discovered the mural and they loved it; they were so happy.” Together, she and the children painted every colour available to them on the tent that serves as a makeshift school. Now the children look forward to going to school, which is really important to Diala. “Some of the refugee kids have to skip school for two or three years and that does not help at all. They often talk about how their life was before they had to start working, how good they were at class. Now they say that everything is useless. It is important to encourage them to go to school and art makes it more colourful to them. We have to save this spark at least.”
Children represent hope for Diala: “When I look at the kids, they are the Syrian future.” Together with the International Medical Corps, Diala has published two comic books aimed at children in refugee camps. The protagonists of “Home Is Where One Starts From” are siblings Majed and Sidra. One day their family decides to flee from Syria. They have to pack quickly and decide whether to take their teddy bear or their doll. What do they need and where are they headed? This journey into the unknown ultimately takes the family to a refugee camp. Majed and Sidra learn how to prevent disease there and stay safe inside the camp. The books tell children stories similar to their own, while teaching them useful skills along the way.
Education is the children’s only protection from drowning in the midst of rubble and war.
Education is crucial; it builds the foundation of security. In some paintings, Diala depicts children wearing bright orange life jackets, even on dry land. She sees education as the life jacket of childhood. By giving children self-confidence and strength, it is their only protection from drowning in the midst of rubble and war. “Education is a life jacket; it is childhood and many children do not have it right now. It is a luxury for children in conflicts. They are not drowning in an actual sea, but drowning on the inside. That is why I think we all need life jackets.”
Many of Diala’s paintings depict colourful dreamscapes, laughing suns shining down on blooming meadows where rosy-cheeked children fly. Her paintings transport the viewer back to childhood for a moment, before reality strikes. Like one of the bombs that has hit the homes of so many families in Damascus, Aleppo and the surrounding area, the viewer is torn out of this world. The paintings show what we cannot ignore: children forced into labour, families fleeing with no more than the clothes on their backs, cities being destroyed. Although the images leave the viewer with a heavy heart, the lovingly drawn children’s faces, the warmth emanating from them generate a faint feeling of courage and hope once again.
She is not trying to dress up the horror and brutality of war (…) but she is equally unwilling to give up hope…
That is what Diala wants to achieve with her art. She is not trying to dress up the horror and brutality of war, or sink into a world of illusion. But she is equally unwilling to give up hope that the war in Syria will end one day. As long as the bombs continue to fall and take away everything that allows children to be children – family, home, friends, hope – Diala will continue to paint a barrier between them and the war, to preserve their dreams.
“My dream, of course, would be for the war to stop so I could go back to Syria. I think we are now practicing for how to deal with these things, how to encourage kids and to deal with civil society. The real work will be after the war. My dream is to go there after the war and start the real work.”
Text by Marlies Klugmann, pictures by Diala Brisly.