For years, Canadian-Kurdish artist Hivron Turanli watched from afar as her mother's native Syria was torn apart by civil war. 

"The Syrian regime wasn't particularly friendly to the Kurds, but I had fond memories of visiting my grandparents in Damascus every other summer," she recalls. "At the outset, it was heartbreaking to see how mainstream media downplayed what was going on in the country, while we heard horrible reports from family and friends in Syria."

While the media debated whether the events in Syria constituted a civil war or genocide, Turanli, 42, kept hearing from relatives about the destruction of towns and villages and people fleeing for their lives.

It was ISIL's takeover of the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar in August 2014 that finally prompted her to take action. "The siege of Sinjar hit many Kurds around the world to the core," she says.

"Once again, we were caught in the middle of a conflict in our ancestral lands that we had neither started, nor had anything to do with."

If artistic expression had helped her cope with her emotions, Turanli wondered whether it might also help the children in the camps to process their own trauma [Al Jazeera]

The siege of Sinjar hit many Kurds around the world to the core. Once again, we were caught in the middle of a conflict in our ancestral lands that we had neither started, nor had anything to do with.

Hivron Turanli, Founder, Paint Away the Trauma

Turanli says she contacted some of the leading NGOs operating in the region to ask how she could help.

"I speak six languages fluently, including Kurdish and Arabic, and I taught Bosnian immigrants Swedish when Sweden received their first wave of Bosnian refugees in the mid-1990s," she says. "I knew there was something I could do. But I never heard back from any organisation."

Undeterred, in February 2015, Turanli booked a flight to Erbil to scope out for herself what the actual needs were on the ground, and how she could make a difference.

There, she met a group of expatriate doctors and nurses who were running their own organisation, called Joint Help for Kurdistan.

"They had set up a medical clinic at the Bagid Kandala II Camp, one of the more remote camps in the middle of nowhere between the cities of Duhok and Zakho," she says.

"I was struck by their dedication to the 7,000 mostly Yazidi Kurdish IDPs [internally displaced persons] there. Seeing them work made me realise that when you want to help, the best way you can do it is with what you do best."

She adds: "The IDPs there are facing serious psychological and emotional trauma, health problems, and the loss of family members while others are still in captivity."

On returning to Canada after her nine-week trip, Turanli says her "mind and emotions were all over the place" because of what she had seen. "I had some canvas and paint lying around in my basement so I started fiddling a bit with that and found a tremendous relief."


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The idea came to her with the overwhelming feedback she received after posting photographs of her artwork on social media."People wanted to know how they could purchase my artwork," she says. "Without giving it much thought, I realised I could simply ask people to make donations to the causes I support and I would give them the painting they wanted. This was until I set up my own charity organisation - Paint Away the Trauma."

Children's artwork on display after a Paint Away the Trauma workshop in northern Iraq [Al Jazeera]

If artistic expression had helped her to cope with her emotions, Turanli wondered whether it might also help the children in the camps to process their own trauma.

On March 4, Turanli flew back to Erbil to meet her friends from Joint Help for Kurdistan. She held two full-day "Paint Away The Trauma" workshops, with the participation of nine children aged between 10 and 11.

"On the first day, I held a class for nine children, teaching them basic letters in English and finished the class with painting with yarn," she says.

"Then I had a class with girls who had escaped sex slavery; one of them had just arrived five days prior and her two sisters who had experienced the same thing were also present."

The results exceeded Turanli's expectations both in terms of painting as well as therapeutic benefits.

"My approach was not to speak of what they had experienced but merely to find a way to express their emotions through painting, but at the end of one class I was cornered by one of the girls who insisted on sharing with me what she had experienced," she says.

"I hugged her and told her she was now safe and that was all that mattered."


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Turanli funded the first round of the project on her own, but she hopes to receive support from NGOs to increase the size and scope of future workshops, and perhaps even sponsor visits from a child psychologist.

"My goal is to make it a running project with access to more campgrounds as well as the needed medical professionals to cooperate on the follow-up necessary," she says, noting that art alone would not be enough to address the psychological damage suffered by these children.

For Turanli, such activism is nothing new. She is the granddaughter of Osman Sabri (1905-1993), an Ottoman Kurdish poet, writer and politician who was one of the founders of the Kurdish Democratic Party.

Sabri was involved in numerous Kurdish revolts from 1928 onwards, and imprisoned for his political activities in both Syria and Iraq.

In 1973, Sabri's daughter and husband sought political asylum in Sweden with the help of Amnesty International. Their daughter, Turanli, was born in Stockholm.

"I was born in Rinkeby, a suburb of Stockholm that was built 1968, as a part of a 'million-dollar programme' to house the huge influx of immigrants coming to Sweden during times of workforce shortage. It was the modern-day wave of what is referred to in Sweden as 'the first generation of immigrants'," she says.

"Growing up in a neighbourhood like that, surrounded by mostly other immigrant families, you are exposed to the daily struggles and problems of parents recovering from the trauma of escaping injustices in their past, as well as trying to integrate into a foreign society."

Follow Tanya Goudsouzian on Twitter: @tgoudsouzian

Source: Al Jazeera