Paintings of hope for Syria’s children

Diala Brisly

Artist Diala Brisly fled Syria in 2013. She now lives in Beirut but she’s well known inside Syria for her work on a children’s magazine that, amazingly, is still printed and distributed inside the country. Here’s her story in her own words, followed by some examples of her work.

The magazine is called Zayton and Zaytonah – like Olive and Oliver, a boy and a girl. There are a lot of olive trees and olive farms in the north of Syria.

They used to print it in Saraqeb but the press was destroyed by shells and they couldn’t fix it, so now they are printing it in Aleppo. They are taking a risk by printing it and distributing it.

The main purpose is to remind kids about being a human being and keep them away from being a fighter. I think this magazine really gives them hope.

I was talking to someone who was distributing the magazine in the north and he told me about a kid who really likes this magazine, but now he has to go to fight. He can’t read the magazine any more because the fighters say it’s “forbidden”.

It’s very important to keep kids on track – being human beings – not just growing up to fight or kill yourself in some war you don’t belong to.

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Diala Brisly

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This recent cover for Zayton and Zaytonah encourages children to hang on to their dreams

I remember when we were still in Syria – a girl came to play the guitar for some kids, and when she went to take the guitar out, one of them started yelling and crying. He thought it was a weapon. It took hours to convince him that it was just an instrument.

There are so many things for them to deal with.

It’s very hard for a kid to see his brother with an open head. He won’t forget it ever.

They still laugh. They still smile. Sometimes they like to play, but they are not comfortable with strangers.

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Media captionTime-lapse: Diala Brisly at work

This illustration is inspired by the graffiti on a school wall that triggered Syria’s uprising. Seeing the revolutions in other Arab countries, some children wrote, “Your turn is coming doctor”, referring to President Bashar al-Assad, an opthalmologist. They were reportedly tortured after arrest, which is why in Brisly’s painting their nails fall out as they lose their grip on their school books. “It was just kiddy behaviour and it made them lose their future,” Brisly says. “In the prison, they didn’t just lose their nails, they lost their future.”

Watch a report on Diala Brisly by Anna Ridout for Newsnight on BBC2

I used to work preparing [opposition] field hospitals in Syria – bringing medical supplies and collecting money and donations – and month by month it became harder. I remember the last month, it was almost impossible and I thought: “That’s it, I can’t do it any more.”

So many people around me got arrested, and some of them got killed.

Once I had medical supplies under the car seat, and the checkpoint stopped me and they wanted to check the car, but I was lucky that the soldier that I stopped next to was a bit drunk. So he said, “Ah you are a beautiful girl, you can go.” I thought, “Oh my God, I am so lucky.” But that made me feel like I could not stay.

We don’t have a country, we don’t have a home.

We lost a lot.

I lost my brother.

You always think, even about the people around you, that you will lose them one day. So you are always prepared for this.

Some people look at the news and they feel like, “Oh my God, we can’t do anything any more.” And this is why I prefer to put some hope into the illustrations – facing tragedy in a different way.

People don’t like to see dead people or explosions. They can’t see it any more. Even me – I can’t see it any more.

Art is a better solution. You can put philosophy in a painting.

Child labour

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Diala Brisly

He’s selling cotton candy. It’s symbolic. He’s a kid but he’s selling things for other kids because he has to make a living. Most people who get this magazine are in the same situation. That’s why I drew this boy happy. I can’t find a solution for him but I want him to be happy anyway. He will keep working, he doesn’t have any solution.

[The following examples of Diala Brisly’s work were not created for Zayton and Zaytonah magazine.]

Be my leg – I will be your arm

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Diala Brisly

This is a kind of encouragement to of us who have lost. I’m really very sad that I lost my brother. All of us lost something, but we can support each other. When I posted it, it had a big impact because there is a lot of depression now among Syrians. We can feel hope with this illustration. We really need something like this. This is why we need art.

Leave Us

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Diala Brisly

This is about a massacre that happened in 2012. It was the first time we had heard about this much killing and massacre, so it was a shock for us. I saw a photo of a kid who lost his arm and his leg and I drew him in my own way. The balloon is a symbol of childhood. I don’t want to give up hope, but actually it is sad. He lost half of his body. It was a collection of illustrations and I called it “Leave Us”.

It’s a baby girl

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Diala Brisly

I saw a photo of people in a rubber boat in the middle of the sea. You see that guy – he might sink in a minute, but he was documenting every minute on his phone. I called it “It’s a baby girl” because it may be the end, but there is also beginning in this boat. They are travelling with this baby to start a new life. After that I was thinking about the life jacket itself, and how all of us need a life jacket – not just people in the middle of the sea.


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Diala Brisly

Refugees are in the middle of nowhere. In their tents it’s like they are in an air balloon, but it doesn’t take them anywhere – it’s not for travelling anywhere. It’s just a long-term temporary situation. Even with a very nice house, I feel like I’m floating. How about these people? If you can’t stop the war, you have to expect people fleeing everywhere. You can’t expect people to stay there dying.

Inside me

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Diala Brisly

When I moved to Istanbul [when this picture was painted] I had contradictory feelings about lots of things. I felt guilty and lonely not being in Syria. Later, when I came to Beirut, I was doing voluntary work with refugees and I was with friends. I could do things to distract myself.

Media captionDiala Brisly: “Art is a weapon”

This is an edited version of Diala Brisly’s interview for BBC2’s Newsnight

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