“Syria In Our Eyes” Brings Syrian Youth Perspective To Dayton
A 2014 UNICEF report calls Syria one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a child. Since the start of the war in Syria in 2011, thousands of children have lost their families and friends and witnessed violence and brutality. One Syrian American family in the Dayton area has responded to the violence by organizing an exhibit of art by Syrian children. Syria in Our Eyes is on display at K12 and TEJAS Gallery in Dayton.
Beth Salama and her husband, Ibrahim Ahmad, came to the U.S. 17 years ago to further their education and decided to make their home here. They now live in Centerville, Ohio, with their four daughters. WYSO visited Salama at her home recently to talk about Syria in Our Eyes, a project that has involved her entire family in one way or another.
One of the pieces of artwork is a large wall size canvas, which she unrolls onto the dining room table. It’s covered with paintings done by young people in her hometown of Tartus, Syria. The overall theme of their artwork is life before and after the start of the war in Syria. Salama points to one of the paintings.
“We see over here a child sitting on their desk in the school, happy,” she says. In the “after” picture, “there is no school. The child is sleeping on the ground with no desk.”
Salama says that’s the situation for many children who are now refugees. “They don’t have schools or shelter, even.”
This canvas is one of many pieces produced by Syrian children for Syria in Our Eyes. Beth’s 17-year-old daughter, Rose Ahmad, came up with the idea for the project last year after talking with kids she knows in Syria. Then, during a visit to family in Syria last summer, Salama found people who were willing to work with young people and provide safe spaces for them to make art. Since then, many pieces have traveled the long distance from Syria to Dayton.
“Each picture has a story behind it, a very powerful story,” says Salama. “And it’s a living story. It’s somebody who’s still out there, living in this situation.”
Salama’s sister Ahlam is a pharmacist in northern Syria and one of the volunteers who has been working with kids on the project. We use an iPhone app to call Ahlam to talk about the project. It’s early evening here, and almost midnight in Syria.
Ahlam worries about the impact of the war on the kids she works with.
“Most of the kids are like seven, eight, nine years old. They are...two or three years when the crisis began,” she says. “And they didn’t know actually what normal life is. They didn’t have dreams or hopes, they can’t express their feelings. They are sad and lonely and homeless.”
The horrors and sorrows they’ve experienced will have long term consequences, says Ahlam. “I feel like the whole new generation in Syria will be damaged and that’s very, very heartbreaking just to think about it.”
But Ahlam says she has seen a positive effect on some of the children as they’ve created art for the show. In small ways, child by child, she feels she is making a difference. There are two other centers making and supplying art for Syria in Our Eyes in addition to the one where Ahlam volunteers. For Salama, getting the artwork in the mail has been both exhilarating — and painful.
“You know, whenever we received any of those it was like a holiday for us. We just open it and smell Syria, and smell the kids, and everybody there.” Her voice breaks, as she holds back tears. “So, I’m just looking at those children who are living there and they don’t know what’s gonna happen tomorrow.
She hopes Syria in Our Eyes will increase public support for finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Syria. And people in the Dayton area have been getting involved. One woman has hand knit sweaters for kids in Syria, another made a quilt using images created by the kids, and students at a local school sent cards, hand made cards, to students in Syria.
Rose Ahmad, Salama’s daughter, has kept in touch with young people in Syria. She is happy with their response to the project she helped start with assistance from her sister Lilly. She has visited her relatives in Syria several times, and has seen a dramatic change in outlook among the young people she knows since the start of the war in Syria. She said she was struck by their sense of hopelessness about the future. And they told her they felt that no one was listening to the their voice, and their calls for peace.
“Everyone’s, like, ignoring the children of Syria and just thinking about the politics and the adults and just, you know, the deaths,” said Rose. “But they’re ignoring the future of Syria, which is the most important thing, you could say. Because once there’s no future for the country, there’s no hope.”
The young people she spoke with told her that working on their art was a refuge.
“I thought that the best way to bring out their voices was through their artwork,” said Rose. “And the way to do that was to bring the artwork to America. If they can’t physically be here, at least their ideas and thoughts can come.”
And the project has let them know that people here in the United States care.
“They felt like for once their voices have been heard,” said Rose. “And it had a huge impact.”
Art from the Syria in Our Eyes project has been exhibited at the Dayton International Peace Museum and the Dayton Art Institute. The artwork will be on display at K12 and TEJAS Gallery through the end of March. After that the plan is to take the exhibit on the road.
Listen to a song, with lyrics in both English and Arabic, by Beth Salama’s two daughters, Sarah and Lilly Ahmad: