A dust cloud enveloped our van as we quickly veered right onto a dirt road. The agricultural fields had now transitioned into parched earth with low rising, treeless mountains in the distance. Slowing down as the dust cleared, I could just make out twelve white and blue tents, aligned one next to each other, in two neat rows. Pulling in closer, the van came to a stop next to a two story concrete building.
We were entirely encircled by refugees as soon as we parked the van. I had to gently push a few out of my way to get out of the vehicle. Altin had attained celebrity status with them. With frenetic energy, a few camp people reached to shake her hand as soon as she stepped out, and then came the hugs. Opening the back door, we displayed all the goods loaded inside. A few anxious residents started grabbing at the boxes, but were pushed back and asked to wait until their family names were called. I quickly covered the bright watercolor sets and pushed the art supplies back further, hoping they would not tempt anyone, while I stepped away to assess my surroundings. I needed to figure out the best way to set up.
As soon as I started walking toward the tents, two girls, carrying a toddler each in their arms, approached me. There were days worth of dirt caked on their toes, peeking out from under their plastic sandals. The shorter girl began speaking to me: "Merhaba. Hoş geldin. Ben Samra (Hi, welcome. I am Samra)." "Oh you speak Turkish," I said. "Very little, but I am learning,'' she replied, with the warmest smile on her face.
The small child in her arms was wearing a horizontally striped blue and pink long sleeved shirt, with a big vertical stripe of grime smeared down the middle. Her face was tanned from being out constantly in the hot sun. Her nose began running, and she wiped her face with her arm. I reached out to carefully stroke her cheek, making sure my hand was far away from her nose and mouth. Samra then tried to hand the girl over to me to carry. "I am very tired from my long journey," I heard myself saying to her. "She will be too heavy for me. Let me just adore her in your in your arms." I didn't want to touch her more than I needed to, in fear of catching something. At the same time, I felt embarrassed and guilty to turn away a kid who had no means of taking care of herself, even if she wanted to.
I walked by the tents, peering into them. They all had various carpets thrown on the floor, and it appeared several families were staying together in each tent. I didn't notice any bedding in them. Perhaps they had them rolled up somewhere. The floors looked smooth and hard enough to draw on, and the tents were large enough to hold about twenty kids.
I decided that I was going to hold the art session in a tent. All the kids could sit on the floor and draw. The first session would be a free draw. I wanted to know what was on their immediate minds and didn't want to dictate what to do. Since they were displaying hoarding behavior at the van, it would be best to give them limited materials. Magic markers would work better on the surface than colored pencils. Watercolor painting would be too messy, and there was no water. It was starting to come together in my mind. Each child would get one colored marker to work with, and a few sheets of paper.
Samra and the other girl continued to follow me around everywhere I walked. "Çok güzel" (very pretty), she said, pulling at my hair. I put my arm around her arm and walked with her. Altin was still distributing food. I wanted her to help me, so I waited. Samra led me into the concrete building. There were rooms on each side where some of the refugees were living. I asked Samra how it was determined who slept in tents and who in the concrete rooms. It was on a first come, first serve basis.
She led me to the top of the building onto the roof, and we could see the flat land stretching for miles into the distance. "I am Kurdish, my friend is Arabic," she said. "My village is just by the mountains over there. I am from Afarin." She pointed toward the mountains. "How do you like staying in Turkey," I asked. "I love it. We have been here for one month, and I am very happy," she said, smiling. "I am Kurdish," she said, but this time made a hand motion showing her arms and legs. I didn't understand what she was telling me until she once again repeated, "My friend is Arabic," and made a motion with her hands, indicating her friend's hair and body were covered and hers were not. "Kurdish, skin ok, Arabic is shame," she said, giggling, and continuing to point at her friend's hijab. I looked at her friend. She was smiling too, but was it half hearted, out of embarrassment to be put on the spot like that.
I led the girls back downstairs. Altin had grabbed a ream of paper and some markers and was standing by the van. "Who wants to draw?" the translator asked the children standing around us. I pulled out a red marker and saw the children's faces light up immediately. "Me! Me!" as hands began going up into the air one by one. With my marker raised above my head, we began walking toward one of the tents and were followed by a mob of about thirty kids. We stopped in front of an open tent. Altin began handing out one sheet of paper from the ream to each child, and I began distributing the markers. Hands were coming at me from every angle. Kids began pushing each other and were determined, at any cost, to get the handouts before they ran out.
What followed was magical: a spontaneous outpouring at its best. Without any instruction from me, the kids filled up the tent and began drawing without a second's hesitation. They were all hunched over, seated on the ground, moving markers, creating various shapes on the clean sheets of paper. It was like a dam had broken and nothing could stop the flow. I was astounded by their focus and attention to the outpouring of their memories. I looked around and saw children crouching on the dirt ground, a few feet outside of the tent, making images en plein air. Suddenly, one of the boys inside jumped up and held up his drawing for me to see. A second later another stood up, her picture raised above her head. One by one they got up. There were about ten kids standing in the tent and saying something to me in Arabic while showing me their work. I had to go in and acknowledge them.
The sun's heat was trapped underneath the sprawling tarp; there was no circulation, only the smell of heavy sweat. Flies were swarming everywhere, and small piles of trash were visible through the back opening of the tent. Kids continued to pop up, show me their pictures, and sit back down. A couple of them kept standing, holding their drawings in their outstretched arms, and staring at me, waiting for their recognition. They all wanted my attention, yet somehow I stopped cold and could not go to them across the filth barrier. I took a deep breath and swatted a fly away from me, in defiance. I had to push past my mental block and stay the course no matter what. I couldn't let those kids down after having giving them so much. One, two, three, and in I went. Images of hearts, homes and stick figures were everywhere. I touched some kids on their shoulders, clapped at some and gave others a thumbs up. I was met with smiles, and with each one I became less and less bothered by the squalor.
We finally made it out of the tent. The children started running up to hand me their pictures. My hands were now filled with everyone's work. The images on top were familiar: stick figures of family members, the sun, hearts, and houses. It struck me as odd that the pictures were so happy in tone, despite the fact they narrowly escaped the Syrian war. Then I came across an image of the bleeding flower, drawn in red on the bottom of one of the drawings. In the top right corner was a warplane spewing out bullets. Pointing to the male image next to the plane, the translator, who was standing next to me, said after seeing my reaction, "His arm is cut off! The boy who drew it began telling me how he saw a dead man who was hit by a bullet. He was so scared talking to me. He shook as he spoke. I am glad I earned his trust."
I wanted to ask the boy about his work. "He will not talk to you," Altin said. "You have to wait. You see he is from Kobani. The kids saw war there. And some of the kids are from Afarin right across the border." Right then it made sense to me. All the kids who drew happy images did not see the horrors of warfare firsthand, whereas the ones who drew tanks and planes had. Samra and her friend were from Afarin. I started looking for them. "Which one is your picture Samra?" I asked, after I found her standing next to the van. We went through the pile. "This is mine'' she said proudly, pointing to a purple house in the middle of a purple heart. "My house and family," she continued. "This is beautiful Samra. I am so glad you showed me."
The food distribution and art session had come to a close. The frenzied energy at the time of our arrival had made way to one of calm and serenity. The refugees appeared satisfied, at least for the moment. Some of the children were walking around with the markers in their hands, unwilling to let go of them.
We had one more stop to make before we had lunch; we had to pick up the remaining artwork from the pregnant woman's children. There was silence in the car, as we drove to the woman's house. We were all tired from the long morning, and the hot sun.
As we drove up, the mother gathered her kids and the artwork they had drawn. She handed us two images as soon as we got out of the car. The translator immediately got out of the car, and came over as the woman began talking to us. "We cried as we drew this. It was very hard for us to think about it again, and we cried. I told my boys to draw every detail they could remember." The two boys each held up very colorful images depicting tanks, warplanes, dead people and explosions. "Hand them to her." I received three images, one of which I was not originally shown to me. It was a man in front of a cross. "It is the man who stops the war," said the boy. I was overjoyed to see something so hopeful after all the pain the boys were going through. While I was wondering if they had previously received a children's Bible, Altin exclaimed, "What a miracle! Jesus has spoken to this boy! It is in the drawing!" I addressed the mother, "Please tell them to continue drawing. Tell them to imagine a perfect day and to draw what that might look like."
My trip was a success. Everything fell into place without any problems. In my first attempt, it seems, some children had fun, while some experienced catharsis. The images of a few of the children kept appearing in my mind, and had such a profound affect on me that I needed to take the time to process it all before I could begin to understand. After a successful start, I decided I would return here. The children loved drawing, and it appeared a few of them needed regular support for any lasting positive effect.
We arrived at our lunch spot. It was a lone maple tree in a barren field off the side of the road. Its long branches with large leaves gave welcoming shade and cool protection. Our lunch was simple: feta cheese filled pastries and water. "I miss eating pork. I just love pork," Altin said, out of nowhere. "Mmm, crispy bacon. It's so hard to find in Turkey. Haven't had it in so long." "I bet the refugees haven't had meat either." I replied.