Every Friday I leave the sleepy city of Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq, and take a two-hour drive northwest to a town called Akrê. Here I help run a project called Castle Art, a program born out of the RISE Foundation that engages teenage girls living in the Akrê Syrian Refugee Camp to paint the walls of the camp (a former Saddam-era prison) with bright colours and messages. Their favourite things to paint are eyes and doves, but the camp has quickly become covered in diverse and colourful images reflecting the unlimited imagination of children. They are, after all, still children.
I don’t hear their stories through language — most of the girls who are from Syrian-Kurdish border towns speak a dialect of Kurdish, and other girls who are from Damascus speak a dialect of Arabic. The barrier between us reduces our communication to smiles and gestures. We hold hands and smile at each other, and when we arrive and when we leave we hug and kiss each other.
[T]he most important thing we can do as a collective population is make sure everyone’s basic needs are met, including food, water, shelter and security. But I have seen that this means another kind of need goes unmet — the need to be recognized for your humanity.
In between there is no time for talking as the girls are busy creating their masterpieces; if you try and interrupt or pick up a paintbrush yourself, you’ll quickly be scolded and told “no”. The girls have a deep sense of ownership over these walls, so most of the time I just stand back and watch, or mix thick, pungent paint in jagged plastic containers when someone enthusiastically yells “Blue!” or “Red!”
On our most recent visit, the father of one of the girls involved in the Castle Art Project invited us to his home for tea. This soon became a family gathering, with about 15 of us crowded into their living room. We sat on a floor full of colourful carpet and cushions, nodding and smiling at each other. You would never know this was a former prison block — this was a home.
The matriarch of this happy family soon insisted that we stay for dinner, all the while smiling and showing us pictures of her family. I could tell it had been a while since they had guests and I thought of my own grandmother, a proud rural Newfoundlander who loved to feed and entertain her friends and loved ones. I thought of how a piece of her would be lost if this simple pleasure was suddenly taken away from her. As this elderly Syrian woman held my hand and pointed lovingly at the pictures of her family, I wondered how many pieces of her had been lost over the last four years.
As we looked at the pictures of their family, the man kept placing his hand over his heart and repeating, “Syria….. Syria,” his tired eyes red and full of tears. All I could do was put my hand over my own heart and say “I’m so sorry”. Because I am, so sorry. I am angry, I am helpless — and I am so sorry.
Unfortunately the refugee crisis this world is facing is so severe that the most important thing we can do as a collective population is make sure everyone’s basic needs are met, including food, water, shelter and security. But I have seen that this means another kind of need goes unmet — the need to be recognized for your humanity.
When we eat with these families, or when we are painting with the girls, for one, maybe two, hours, I see a little bit of that humanity restored. I see a teenage girl able to chat and argue with her friends, I see a teenage girl able to grow a talent that she never knew she had, I see a woman able to restore pride and honour to her loving home by receiving and feeding guests. I see people with the courage to remind the world: I am a human being, and I matter.
This makes it harder to think of refugees as droves of misplaced people clamouring to the nearest temporary safe haven. This makes it harder to skip over the news about another sinking boat, another lost family, another 100, 200, 300 or 10, 000 people with no place to sleep tonight. This makes every life lost, and every life ruined, personal. Because there is absolutely nothing that separates you or I from a Syrian refugee except the grace by which you found yourself born in a place without war. Lucky you.
Every Friday I am humbled and honoured to bare witness to these stories of courage, fear, loss, frustration and, most of all, hope. A humble hope, a cautious hope that is grown in colours on the walls of the former prison cells these girls and their families call home. There is a lot more to these girls than the part I see once a week for five hours — but the part I do see is resilience, intelligence, strength and beauty.
These qualities pale in comparison to modern day aspirations for money, notoriety or success. They are my sisters, friends, and teachers. Five days a week I work as a teacher in a classroom, but on Friday I am lucky enough to get an education in what it means to be a human being.
Refugees know what it’s like to lose, but they also know what it’s like to never, ever, ever, ever give up. They understand sacrifice at sometimes unbearable costs. They are not strangers to hard work in the face of disappointment and human compassion in the face of evil. I cannot think of a more exemplary kind of citizen whom I would gladly welcome into my country, city or home.
Maria Mulcahy is a 27-year-old teacher from St. John’s, Newfoundland who has worked in education in Canada, Qatar and Yemen. She currently lives and works in Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq and helps run the Castle Art Project, which engages young teenage girls in art therapy at the Akre Syrian Refugee Camp in northwestern Iraq.