Diala Brisly has very powerful weapons in her hands: colours. They are weapons that can move the world but cannot injure anyone. They are the weapons of imagination and of art.
Until 2013 Diala lived in Syria and it was here that she began to draw, in order to help children to bear the burden of war and to help herself to bear the burden of a conflict which killed her brother.
Diala had to escape, she is a refugee, an exile – like thousands of other people – who lived in Beirut, Lebanon for three years.
Thus for three years Diala took her colours, her paintbrushes – her weapons – and reached out to the Syrian children in the tents where the refugees live, almost two million Syrians, in order to fight with them the daily war to survive their hardships and nostalgia for their homeland
Diala seems like a sprite, she is a young woman whose eyes shine with vitality, a young woman who has made her time and talent available to lighten the burden of exile for Syrian children who, for five years now, have been forced to live in tents.
There are 500,000 school-age Syrian children who have been living in Lebanon since the beginning of the conflict.
For more than half of them – as well as an army of almost 300,000 other children – there is no access to the school system. Lebanon does not have enough places, despite the addition, a year ago, of a second school session in the afternoon.
Diala concerned herself with the destiny of these children, ever since, like them, she fled from the war.
“I began to draw in 2001”, Diala said. “I should have liked to do many different things, to devote myself to painting, to create cartoons for children. I had many dreams. However, it was only at the beginning of the revolution in 2011 that I came to realize that art could become a critical means and that it could be useful to my country”.
In 2011 Diala joined the protests as an activist for the movement for Syrian movement for democracy. She worked together with other young people to bring supplies to the field hospitals which were under siege. “We also worked in areas controlled by the regime, we delivered medicines and coordinated humanitarian aid. Then my friends were arrested, one after another. I realized that I was no longer safe. I understood that I would have to escape from my country.”
“There was a day on which I clearly realized that I would soon be leaving: I was delivering medical material. I had serum under the car seat and they stopped me at a checkpoint to inspect the car”.
“I was lucky only because the soldier who stopped me was visibly drunk: he looked at the other soldier who was with him and said, “See what a pretty girl she is, let’s allow her to go”. And at that precise moment I felt my life was hanging by a thread, I was like a tightrope walker but my fate no longer depended on me.”
“In those few moments at the checkpoint I saw my whole life passing before my eyes. I feared I would end up in prison for ever”.
A few days later Diala was in Turkey, a refugee among refugees.
She fled the war to save her life.
“The days in Turkey were almost worse than my last days in Syria. I could not manage to find a job, not even as a volunteer in the humanitarian organizations.”
“I felt useless and I felt guilty because I wanted a safe life, whereas people in Syria were still suffering, dying of hardship, dying under the bombs”.
One day Diala received a telephone call from home. Her brother had been killed in the north of Syria. Diala told of how she wept more than ever; she had thought that she wouldn’t be capable of crying again.
She moved to Beirut, Lebanon, to endeavour to give meaning to her talent and her art, working with the humanitarian associations which support women’s rights and school projects for Syrian children.
With her paintbrushes and colours Diala created murals on the tents in the refugee camps to encourage the children and to lift then from the burden of privations forced upon them.
“I was once teaching the children in a refugee camp. Not one of them had access to the Lebanese public school system. There was one 10-year-old child who was obliged to work as a mechanic in the mornings because his father was unable to find a job and they no longer knew where to find the money for food”.
“I drew with him every afternoon for two weeks, and one day I asked him for a telephone number where I could reach him and his family”.
“I noted his number; on his photo in the WhatsApp profile there was a coffin and his status was: ‘When I die I shall miss you’”.
“I was desperate. A 10-year-old child with thoughts so close to death”.
Diala worked with Ahmed for many weeks, she tried to explain to him that he had to stand up to all the difficulties, to the effort of work and exploitation, she sought to teach the child to be strong in spite of everything: in spite of life in a tent, his unemployed father, and his brothers and sisters who often had nothing to eat to appease their hunger.
One day she asked Ahmed to modify his image and his status: “’Be optimistic, try it’, I said to him”.
“He told me he had done it only for me. He posted an image with coloured flowers and the sentence: ‘I will resist however hard my life is’”.
“I felt that my work was serving some purpose. Perhaps also to lighten the burden of loss for one single child”.
Last July Human Rights Watch produced a 90-page report on the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon entitled “Growing up without education”.
In this report one reads that certain Lebanese schools have failed to respect the norms for the enrolment of refugees, and above all that the Government has imposed rigid residence criteria that severely curtail the refugees’ freedom of movement, making the search for a job for heads of families de facto impossible and aggravating the financial conditions of entire families. These families are forced to make their children work for a few dollars a day, thereby depriving them of the right to study.
Many Syrian refugees fear being arrested if they are found working without a residence permit.
More than 70 per cent of the families currently live below the poverty level.
And more and more children, often very young, work in the camps for a handful of dollars a day.
Even the more fortunate families, in which the father works, are frequently unable to meet the costs required by the school: for transport, for school books.
“The greatest risk for Syrian children in Lebanon”, Diala continued, “will be the lack of education. These children are Syria’s future, they represent the only possibility for rebuilding the country. What kind of country will ours be if we witness the destruction of these children’s future without doing anything? An ignorant generation is growing up, they will be adults with no knowledge, with no critical notions and they will not know how to interpret what happens around them”.
“These means that the years we shall be living will be more dangerous than the present ones, for a child deprived of knowledge is more exposed to deviation and to the possibility of being recruited by fundamentalist groups”.
Diala takes up her colours and continues to tell – with her illustrations – stories of salvation and hope.
“I would like to help the children of the whole world. But my greatest dream is to return to helping children in Syria”.
Today Diala lives in a small French village not far from Marseille; she succeeded in obtaining a humanitarian visa to leave Lebanon.
Diala wants to start a new life, she knows and repeats that she, a small Syrian artist, is luckier than many of her compatriots.
“I remember when I was still in Syria that we were in a square, one of the safest places, and a girl had come up to me where I was talking to dozens of children. She started playing her guitar and one child screamed and cried very loudly. The child thought that the guitar was a weapon. It took hours to convince him that this was not the case”.
St. Peter’s Square
Feb. 21, 2020
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