The Truth About Syria: Mahmoud’s Story

14 March, 2021

“Free Syr­ia” by Wafa Ali Mustafa.

Mischa Geracoulis

When Mah­moud Ismail and his fam­i­ly left Dam­as­cus cir­ca 2012, they did­n’t know when or where exact­ly the jour­ney might end. First to Lebanon, then through Turkey, they arrived in Greece some four years later. 

Then 12, Mahmoud holds up his best-selling image.

Then 12, Mah­moud holds up his best-sell­ing image.

Around this same time, a flight atten­dant based in Frank­furt named Kayra Mar­tinez was becom­ing aware of the Mediter­ranean refugee cri­sis. Orig­i­nal­ly from Col­orado, she had trav­elled and lived in var­i­ous coun­tries out­side of the U.S. for years. After watch­ing Ger­man TV from her Frank­furt flat, observ­ing the often-hor­ren­dous con­di­tions in which refugees and asy­lum seek­ers found them­selves, she made a point to get edu­cat­ed on the cri­sis. Once real­iz­ing that there were lit­er­al­ly hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple in her own back­yard, Kayra decid­ed to see for herself. 

A trip to the near­by train sta­tion brought her face to face with throngs of des­per­ate peo­ple. Though pri­mar­i­ly from Afghanistan and Syr­ia, look­ing into the eyes of the old­er women amongst the crowd, Kayra lat­er said that she felt that any one of them could have been her moth­er. Any one of those young men could have been her broth­er. Watch­ing  them crowd into makeshift camps around the sta­tion and along the road­side, com­pelled her to offer what she could. 

When Kayra was­n’t fly­ing for work, she began col­lect­ing food and cloth­ing dona­tions from her Frank­furt com­mu­ni­ty, and opened her flat to refugee moth­ers, giv­ing them an oppor­tu­ni­ty to bathe their babies. Still, she felt a heartrend­ing pull to do more. 

The truth about Syr­ia? It is an upris­ing, it is a revolution–it is not a civ­il war. The peo­ple in Der­aa and Dam­as­cus start­ed this not because they were pushed or manip­u­lat­ed or mobi­lized by for­eign pow­ers or paid by the ene­mies of the state. We were under severe sup­pres­sion and oppres­sion for years and our rev­o­lu­tion was brew­ing. When it hap­pened in Tunisia and Egypt, it trig­gered the sit­u­a­tion in Syr­ia and speed­ed up the processes…Today, Syr­ia is a mix of Soma­lia, Zim­bab­we and Rwan­da. This is going to last like this for years and I see no light at the end of the tun­nel.

— Bas­sam Al-Jazairi, Syr­i­an refugee reset­tled in Belgium

Kayra began to vol­un­teer in the Nea Kavala refugee camp in north­ern Greece, where she wit­nessed a seem­ing­ly end­less sea of trau­ma­tized chil­dren. On a whim, she brought paper and crayons into the camp, impro­vised an “art stu­dio,” and ush­ered chil­dren in. She not­ed how the chil­dren were almost imme­di­ate­ly calmed, trans­fixed by the fleet­ing chance to return to the inno­cence of child­hood. She was astound­ed by their creations—resplendent out­pour­ings of emo­tion, har­row­ing scenes, and unfa­mil­iar vistas. 

Mahmoud_Ismail_NBCNews_2017.JPG

Since that first day of col­or­ing in the camp, thou­sands more chil­dren clam­ored to do the same. Kayra quick­ly devised a way to bring artists’ materials—canvases, brush­es, acrylics pur­chased local­ly in Greek shops—to the refugees, facil­i­tat­ing art­mak­ing work­shops, or sim­ply pro­vid­ing the space and implements. 

Enter Mah­moud Ismail. He and his fam­i­ly had been trans­port­ed to the Nea Kavala refugee camp in north­ern Greece where they met Kayra. 

One of Mah­moud’s first works of art, paint­ed in 2016 in Nea Kavala, fea­tures a lone red raft on an indi­go sea set against a Van Gogh-esque star­ry night sky.  Repro­duced as a post card, Mah­moud’s depic­tion of the dark Aegean cross­ing was sold to raise funds for fam­i­lies in the camp. 

Dur­ing a March 2021 What­sApp video call with Mah­moud, now liv­ing in Ger­many, he said he real­ly does­n’t know why the war start­ed in Syr­ia 10 years ago; he only knows that he and his fam­i­ly need­ed to get to Greece. “We came in a small boat in the mid­dle of the night. I drew this pic­ture to show that we were alone in the sea.” The pro­ceeds from his paint­ing of that event, the small raft’s dark-of-night arrival on Greek shores, was ulti­mate­ly respon­si­ble for hous­ing 28 refugee fam­i­lies in Athens. 

Fast-for­ward to the non­prof­it that Kayra Mar­tinez for­mal­ized in 2017, Love With­out Bor­ders for Refugees in Need.  The result of those work­shops and freeform paint­ing ses­sions has, thus far, been 110 world­wide art exhi­bi­tions in which she sells the refugees’ works of art and returns 100% of the sales to the artists. The funds have pro­vid­ed sup­port to refugees liv­ing in camps and else­where in Greece, have secured apart­ments in Athens for some of the fam­i­lies exit­ing the Nea Kavala camp, and helped to reset­tle fam­i­lies in sev­er­al coun­tries in north­ern Europe. 

When Kayra met Mah­moud in the camp in 2016, his nat­ur­al gift as an artist quick­ly came to light. A 12-year-old, he was also artic­u­late in Eng­lish, pos­sess­ing an effer­ves­cent per­son­al­i­ty and affa­ble “can do” spir­it. For the next year and a half, Mahmoud—with his moth­er’s permission—became Kayra’s right hand, trans­lat­ing Ara­bic to Eng­lish, and often aid­ing in impor­tant deci­sion-mak­ing when gov­ern­men­tal and non­govern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions floundered. 

Even at such a ten­der age, Mah­moud stood out as a leader, and dur­ing that first year, was instru­men­tal in iden­ti­fy­ing 38 of the most vul­ner­a­ble fam­i­lies in the camp, assist­ing Kayra with end­less paper­work nec­es­sary for fam­i­ly trans­fers out of the camp. Dur­ing this peri­od, Greece suf­fered immea­sur­able wild­fire dam­age, cre­at­ing a cri­sis for ani­mals as well as peo­ple. In response, Love With­out Bor­ders extend­ed its care to that of home­less ani­mals for which Mah­moud eager­ly took part in orga­niz­ing. Says Mah­moud, think­ing back on those days with Kayra, “I tried to help her as much as I could, for as many as possible.” 

Mahmoud Ismail at 17 in Germany.

Mah­moud Ismail at 17 in Germany.

While Mah­moud did for oth­ers along­side Kayra in the camp, he con­tin­ued to draw and paint with the oth­er chil­dren. He mused, “Art is [an out­let] to draw and paint my feel­ings and to [imag­ine] with­out thoughts of prob­lems. I think if some­body has a lot of prob­lems in life, he could bring that to the can­vas and [give it] col­or. Kayra taught me to keep things simple.” 

For Mah­moud, mak­ing art was a way to sim­pli­fy, to process trau­ma, envi­sion anoth­er life, and make a bit of mon­ey. As resilient as he’s proven to be, and wis­er before his time, the hours spent col­or­ing and paint­ing were rare moments to reclaim being a child. 

 Adept at lan­guages, Mah­moud now adds Ger­man to his rerpetoire.  He reports that “it was good to come to Ger­many. I am start­ing a good life here with edu­ca­tion and every­thing else. I don’t draw now, but I play foot­ball and do sports.” He attends a Ger­man voca­tion­al school, vir­tu­al­ly until pan­demic’s remis­sion, and says that his plans after­wards include “join­ing a busi­ness for sell­ing cars.” 

When asked if he thinks of Syr­ia, or if he’s in con­tact with any­one there, he responds, “Yes, I have con­tact with Syr­ia, and I think about the peo­ple there, but there’s no going back.” 

Ten years on, Mah­moud still does­n’t know why there’s war in his home­land, adding, “I was small in Syr­ia; and now I am 17 years old, and live in Germany.” 

DamascusSyrian refugee

TMR contributing editor Mischa Geracoulis is a writer and educator of critical media literacy, English for speakers of other languages, and those with learning differentials. Her writing, teaching and approach to life are informed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Some of her topics of research include the Armenian Genocide and Diaspora, restorative justice, equitable education and child welfare, and the multifaceted human condition. Her work has appeared in Middle East Eye, The Guardian, Truthout, LA Review of Books, Colorlines, Gomidas Institute, National Catholic Reporter, and openDemocracy, among others. Follow her on Twitter @MGeracoulis.