The art of war

Drawings by Syrian refugee children show horrors of conflict

Safa Faki-Asher (right) facilitated art sessions for children in a refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border.

Safa Faki-Asher (right) facilitated art sessions for children in a refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border.

Photo courtesy of Safa Faki-Asher

The Lost Generation, featuring drawings by Syrian refugee-camp children, shows through April 7 at Butte College Art Gallery. Reception/talk: Tuesday, April 5, 2 p.m.

Safa Faki-Asher’s current home, in Paradise, is far removed from her troubled homeland of Syria, but sometimes the specter of violence returns unexpectedly to haunt her. The sound of planes and helicopters, for example, can induce panic in the young woman. Upon moving to the Ridge three years ago, helicopters working to repair nearby flumes took her back to her last days in her hometown of Aleppo, upsetting her so much she found it difficult to leave the house.

“When the planes and helicopters would come from the regime [forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad], they didn’t care who was killed,” Faki-Asher said during a recent interview. “They would just drop bombs and shoot at anybody.

“Before we’d decided to leave [Aleppo], I went like usual to take the bus to work,” she said. “A helicopter was firing a machine gun, I could hear it right above my head. A lady on the street was freaking out and running away. That’s when my brother called, telling me to come back home—it was time to leave.”

Syria’s still-raging civil war began in 2011, and Faki-Asher and family fled Aleppo in 2012 for Atmeh, a small village on the Turkish border where they owned property. Atmeh was also a destination for displaced refugees trying to leave the country, but the Turkish government closed the crossing, giving birth to a refugee camp. When Faki-Asher settled in Atmeh, she began visiting the burgeoning camp, which then had about 400 residents.

“It was very sad to see the refugees, especially the children,” Faki-Asher said. “They would just sit there under trees, sitting in mud playing with rocks, because they had nothing else. No schooling, no home, no help. A lot of them were traumatized and had seen terrible things—people killed, their families killed.”

She said that unlike refugee camps in other countries, where the United Nations and humanitarian groups provide aid and services, the camps inside Syria have no such help. On her own accord, the then-23-year-old Faki-Asher bought art supplies with money she’d saved from her first teaching job, having recently graduated college with a degree in fine arts. She started visiting the camp for several hours a day four days a week, encouraging the children to draw whatever they wanted.

“They drew bombs, planes attacking, soldiers attacking, people being killed,” she said. “Some would draw normal life and the things they missed, like their homes and sweets.”

Faki-Asher has provided a selection of the children’s drawings for an exhibit, The Lost Generation, now on display at Butte College Art Gallery.

She said the positive effects on the children who participated were apparent: “You could see them smiling, and feel their happiness.”

She continued the project for about a year, but had to stop for multiple reasons. For one, the camp grew to about 9,000 during that time, and it became too hard for her to supply and manage the sessions by herself (an estimated 100,000 people are in the camp now, Faki-Ashir said).

It also became dangerous. The camp, she explained, is a point of entry for foreign extremists seeking to join ISIS or other factions. There were bombings, one of which killed several people at one of two hospitals; she worked as an administrative assistant in the other. She felt especially threatened as a woman, and even more so when she got engaged to an American journalist, Rob Asher, who was reporting on life in the camp. The couple married and left for America, arriving in Paradise in 2013.

“My family is still there, so I worry about them all the time,” she said. “They could be killed; they are surviving day by day. Here it is peaceful, and I’m living normally like I used to before the war, but they are not.”