With millions of Syrian refugee children out of school, a programme in Turkey is offering an alternative.
Beirut – Diala Brisly has some very powerful weapons in her hands – but while they can influence the world, they cannot hurt anyone.
Her weapons are colours.
Until a few years ago, Brisly lived in Damascus, where she began to draw – both to help children cope with the trauma of war, and, after fleeing Syria for Turkey, to help deal with the loss of her own brother in the Syrian conflict.
Today, she lives in Beirut, where she takes her brushes and her colours inside the tents of other Syrian refugees, helping them to combat their difficult living conditions and the ever-present longing for home.
Brisly, 35, began working as a cartoonist at the Syria-based Spacetoon channel in 2001. She first became aware that art could be a powerful tool for change in 2011, when anti-government protests broke out across Syria.
“In 2011, I began as an activist in the movement for democracy in Syria, at first joining in protests and creating artwork. This soon expanded into working to supply field hospitals that were under siege with [medical equipment] … and coordinating humanitarian assistance.”
But soon, Brisly’s friends started getting arrested, one after another, and she began to worry that she could be next. “I realised that I should run away from my country,” she told Al Jazeera.
After fleeing to Turkey as a refugee, Brisly said she struggled to find a job, even as a humanitarian volunteer. “I felt useless, and above all, I felt guilty because I wanted a safe life while people in Syria were still suffering, dying of starvation, dying under the bombs.”
I felt useless, and above all, I felt guilty because I wanted a safe life while people in Syria were still suffering, dying of starvation, dying under the bombs.
One day, she received a phone call that her brother had been killed in northern Syria, and Brisly broke down. In 2014, she decided move to Beirut and begin afresh, making use of her artistic talent.
There, she became involved with humanitarian groups focusing on women’s rights and refugee education. She painted murals on the tents of refugees – depicting sunshine, nature, and the concept of finding hope – in an effort to help children forget about the war.
All of Brisly’s works have one thing in common: The images must be simple, so that they can enter the hearts of the children more easily.
“To many, it may seem pure decoration, but for children, it is real therapy,” Brisly said.
In one instance, Brisly recalled holding an art lesson with children in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. None of the children had access to the Lebanese public school system.
“There was a child who was 10 years old, Ahmed,” she recalled. “During the morning, he was forced to work as a mechanic, because his father could not find a job and they did not know how to feed themselves. I drew with him every afternoon for two weeks.
“One day, I asked him for a phone number where I could contact him and his family. His WhatsApp picture was a coffin, and his status was: ‘When I die you will miss me.’ I was desperate: a 10-year-old boy with thoughts so close to death.”
Brisly worked with Ahmed for weeks and tried to explain that he had to remain strong despite the many hardships. One day, Brisly asked Ahmed to change his WhatsApp image and status.
“Be optimistic,” she told him. “He told me that he did it just for me. He put an image with colourful flowers and a sentence: ‘I will resist, no matter how tough it will be in my life.’ I felt that my work was finally useful.”
According to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, approximately 500,000 school-age children like Ahmed have fled to Lebanon since the outbreak of Syria’s war. More than half lack access to schooling, despite the addition of a second shift of afternoon classes in an effort to accommodate the influx.
According to Human Rights Watch, more than 70 percent of refugee families in Lebanon live below the poverty line, forcing more and more young children to go to work for just a few dollars a day.
“The biggest risk for Syrian children in Lebanon will be the lack of education,” Brisly said. “These children are the future of Syria; they represent the only possibility of rebuilding our country. But what kind of country will [it] be if we witness the destruction of these children without doing anything?”
In the meantime, Brisly intends to continue using her colours to tell stories of salvation and hope.
“I would like to help children around the world,” she said. “But my biggest dream is to go to help children in Syria.”