Diala Brisly: Building hope for Syrian children through paintings

Syrian artist Diala Brisly is becoming a wellspring of encouragement for children refugees in Syria and Lebanon.

by Portia Ladrido

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Diala creating murals in the refugee camps in Lebanon. © Yousef Doughan

Even after fleeing the country in 2013, Diala Brisly’s name still rings across towns in Syria. Her widespread following is primarily because of her illustrations for a children’s magazine which is being distributed inside the war-torn country until now. Due to the growing destabilisation of her country, she moved to Lebanon, and as soon as she arrived, she started painting workshops in refugee camps with children refugees to inject vibrant colours into the dark days that the kids were used to having.

Diala is currently seeking asylum in France and while she, herself, is figuring out how to live life away from home, her desire to bring about hope to children refugees endures.

INKLINE: Could you tell us about how you started as an illustrator in Syria?

Diala: I started working in art as an animator in a cartoon company in 2001. After five years, I started doing books and drawing for magazines. During all this time, I used to volunteer for kids with cancer or orphans – even when there were Iraqis in Syria. But I started working with the Syrian children in 2014 in Lebanon. I do workshops with them in different ways. Sometimes we do just illustrations; sometimes I teach them how to do very simple animation to tell their stories.

I: There is this children’s magazine in Syria that you worked on called Zayton and Zaytona. Can you tell me more about that and how that started?

D: There were few magazines that started in liberated areas. But before that, it was really hard to publish any kind of magazine. It’s always not allowed. When I say liberated areas, I mean liberated from Assad regime and ISIS. I work with Zayton and Zaytona (meaning ‘a boy and a girl’) and another one called Zawraq (meaning ‘boat’).

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One of Diala’s paintings of families © Diala Brisly

It has stories that encourage kids to not give up hope and some of them about general informations about animals. They’re very general; no ideology behind or any political directions. It’s a proper children’s book and we do that because there is no TV anymore and a lot of kids don’t go to school so in this way we encourage them to read more because they don’t have anything anymore – no bookshops, no internet, no computers.

I: How have you been able to distribute this seeing that Syria has been in a very vulnerable position?

D: Each one of us [contributors of the magazine] is in a different country so we meet on a secret group on Facebook. When we finish a piece that we are working on, we send it via e-mail and then have someone print it in Syria. For example, for Zawraq, Zayton and Zaytona, there are people who take the copies by motorbike from Aleppo to different places in the North of Syria. It’s always printed inside of Syria and sometimes it’s printed in Damascus suburbs as well as in places under siege, but there it’s really, really hard to get ink so they print it black and white.

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Diala working on the family mural. © Diala Brisly

I: When you moved to Lebanon, how did you start with the workshops and murals in the refugee camps?

D: The murals I started in 2014. It was my own initiative. I knew that there was a girl who was in Syria and she moved to Lebanon. She was an activist, and she didn’t want to stop so she decided to open a public library for kids in a place called Arsal.

It’s a village in the border of Lebanon and Syria, so a lot of Syrians went to this village when they fled. I told her I will make a mural there and also collect books from people I know. This was my first time to do a mural. When I saw how the kids reacted and they really loved it, I thought it would be very encouraging for them to do this everywhere in the camps because now we can’t have proper schools, we just make them in the tents (makeshift rooms). In every tent, there is one classroom or two. It’s not enough but it’s better than nothing.

Now that I’m in France, I was thinking to make big illustrations, paint them here, and send them to Lebanon while I’m not able to move because now I’m seeking asylum here so I can’t go away from France.

I: You mentioned in your BBC article that your drawings aim to “keep kids on track […] not just growing up to fight or kill yourself in some war you don’t belong to”. Could you explain this? 

D: A lot of kids in Syria can’t study and even when they study, it’s under very, very bad circumstances. They have a very, very hard time and hard life and a lot of them have to work. They work in farming, they work selling things in streets, and they do really hard jobs under the sun like carrying heavy things so most have really strong depression.

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Diala teaching the children some basic drawing skills. © Diala Brisly

Some of them, especially boys, think that the best way to end this miserable life is fighting. I spoke to some of them who are outside of Syria, and they always think of going back to Syria and fight against whoever they think the enemy is in the hopes of getting their life back again.

So, I think it’s an important and good thing to show them these kinds of things – to bring peace to their lives and help them express their feelings by art. It could be through drawing or music or even acting.

I: Which one is your personal favourite painting that you think really resonated with the children?

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This painting because of the concept. This is the cover for Zayton and Zaytona magazine. I like this one because all I think when we go to the camps and we do workshops or any kind of activities is that they look at us like their heroes. Actually, we can’t change much in their lives. We can’t get them out of this place, so what we try to do is to encourage them to change their environment; to be stronger.

When I work with kids, I tell them the truth like life is hard; it’s not butterflies and flowers all the time, but you have to be stronger and know how to protect yourself. For us, we can’t really help much to get them out of the camp or get them out of this life or stop them from working this hard job but at least we can encourage them that they can change something by themselves.

I: What can you say to emerging artists who want to do art that displays something greater than aesthetic beauty?

D: Actually when I started drawing, I did things without any meaning. It was so frustrating for me and now what I do is I do it with all my heart. I think you really have to believe in what you are doing. If you are into drawing or making a song or whatever, you really have to put your personal experience in it. Sometimes you can’t express someone else’s experience by your art but I think even then you have to believe in what you are doing.

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