We arrive at the Domiz cultural center in the early morning to set up for the event: an art festival showcasing children and adult refugees’ paintings and drawings. I shuffle my feet along the greyish floor, noting that the hallways and walls are completely barren. Fadi explains to me what is going to happen: we will adorn the walls with kids’ paintings, and set up the adults’ work on easels all along the halls.
“The adults are all professional artists who live in the camp,” Fadi tells me, taping a colorful drawing to the wall. I blink. I never considered that there would be professional painters living in Domiz. The idea seems, embarrassingly, incongruous to me. I see the camp as a place where people go just to survive. Maybe they sew to make a living, set up a small construction shop, give people haircuts—they don’t make beautiful art. But as the paintings go up one by one, it is so clear that these artists are trained, I mean trained. I notice that every piece is exquisitely, and mournfully, informed by their experiences as refugees.
The afternoon passes by swiftly; it feels like magic and also like heartache. I stop by a painting of large purple fish, swirling and transcendent. Fensa, the artist, explains, “They represent children, taken away from their home. They are like fish out of water, it’s almost impossible to survive.” I ask her why she paints. She says, “to escape from the camp.” It is difficult to be an artist in a refugee camp. Just consider. Materials are hard to come by, as are places to show and sell your work. Samir studied art in university in Syria—in a stylish beret and suspenders, he pouts appropriately for the camera. “I usually like more abstract art,” he says. “But I drew this piece so that the message was really clear,” he gestures towards his colossal painting: a woman wearing a hijab, a child slung on her back, one hand covering most of her face.
Residents peruse the hallways and stop at each painting, while kids run around everywhere, pointing excitedly at their drawings on the walls. Each artist stands next to their easel, explaining the meaning of their paintings to onlookers. I suddenly feel a pressing tug on my chest; how can I capture the loveliness of this event when every inch begs to be photographed, when I have just two hours, when I am just one person? I’m scribbling down statements from people that speak to today’s healing power:
“I drew people afraid when they came from Syria, but then they are happy because they’re safe here.” Rojla, 12. “Painting, for me, helps me run away from the tents. To run away from my situation.” Sipa, 29. “Today, I don’t feel like a refugee.” Fensa, 27.
I kneel down to say hello to a little girl with bouncy bangs and a bowl cut—she gives me a huge smile showing small, chipped teeth, grabs my face in her hands and kisses my cheek. It’s like magic and like heartache.