Soulaf “Soully” Abas is an artist and Teaching Assistant at Indiana State University (ISU). She holds Bachelor and Master of Fine Arts degrees from ISU. She works out of a shared studio space in the Fairbanks Library on the ISU campus. At 29 years old, Soully has experienced more than most of us will ever experience in a lifetime. When you look into her eyes, you get a sense of her sorrow, love and passion for her art, her homeland and the Syrian refugee children she is helping. I hope this interview touches a few of you, so that we don’t forget about the victims of the crisis in Syria.
Brian: You recently returned from Jordan where you worked with Syrian children refugees. Can you speak to what motivated you?
Soully: I’m Syrian and I have been here for a few years, but my whole family is still in Syria. Being away and watching the whole country fall apart has not been easy. In 2012 after a visit to Syria to see my family, I started doing a series of paintings and printmaking about the imagery that I had seen. About a year after that it just felt like it wasn’t enough anymore. I am doing these paintings partially for me to process the trauma, but it is also to bring awareness to what is happening in my home country. You watch the news, you get Facebook and Twitter, you watch Fox News and CNN and the news media shows, and you see what they want you to see. Even if there are some tragic images here and there, after a while you just become numb to it. It becomes like any other day and any other part of the world falling apart, and who cares. I have to pay my mortgage, or my rent. We are consumed constantly with our own problems. When I chose to do the paintings I did about Syria, it was about what was happening in Syria. I wanted to raise the awareness and make the audience stop and look, because when you have a painting or an etching up in a gallery, you give that image a different meaning and a different dimension. People who go to galleries would want to stop and pay more attention and maybe ask questions and show interest, compassion and sympathy, and that is a really good start.
Brian: What is it that you hope will result out of exposing this to more people?
Soully: I don’t want the Syrian victims to become statistics and just numbers. I want us not to forget. When things are happening very far away, we tend to think they are not real. What I’m trying to do is to bring as much life to my paintings and etchings, and that’s the reason why I went to the refugee camps. I wanted to expose myself to what was really happening and life with those people, and see for myself what they have to go through. So, when I come back as a teacher, an artist and as a friend, I can truly communicate the experience, because I have seen it first hand. I have lost family in Syria, and I am a victim of the war in Syria. It was very difficult to remember the Syria I love and then to go back and see the physical destruction that has taken place, and the human tragedy.
Brian: How well do feel you have accomplished that?
Soully: The first time I showed the Syrian body of work was my MFA show in May of 2013. The response I got from the people who went to the show was very strong. Three people cried because of one certain painting. And, the people asked a lot of questions. I think that was a really good start. It may be happening on a small scale at the moment, but I am trying to exhibit in more than one place. I have already exhibited in Washington, D.C., I have a show in Cincinnati on Friday and I have a show in Los Angeles in January. So, I am trying to get the word and the work out.
Brian: Tell us about how you decided to go to the refugee camps in Jordan?
Soully: The idea came to me while I was on a bus going from Washington, D.C. to New York in August of 2013. I was on my way to make arrangements for another art show and I started thinking, “what more can I do,” because it just didn’t seem like I was doing enough. I came up with the idea of gardening, because I love gardening. I thought, “what if I come to a camp, and along with the kids, we plant a garden in the shape of the Syrian map and call it ‘Blooming Syria?’” This way kids would be taking care of Syria everyday, watering Syria, and Syria would grow. That was the first thought I had when I got on the bus. I daydreamed about that project for four hours on the bus. By the time I got off the bus in New York, I felt like I had already been to Jordan and back, and I was telling the story of how I worked with the refugees. So, ideas started growing from there.
I started an IndieGoGo campaign to raise about $5,000 for art supplies, food and my travel to Jordan. To raise money I used my paintings and etchings, a body of work before I started the Syria series. The images were landscapes, watercolors and happy things people would enjoy having in their homes. Instead of charging $600 to $1,000 per piece and only selling a few pieces, I was selling them for $25 to $50. I thought it would be good because I am doing everything I could. The more pieces I could sell, the more people I could touch and more awareness would take place. I felt like that would be good for the project, myself, and the people who wanted to participate. I was able to raise half of the money before I left for Jordan, and when I got to Jordan, I was able to raise the other half of the money by selling my work there.
Brian: What was it like at the refugee camps?
Soully: When I got there, I started working at the therapy center with the children, because what most people don’t know is if you are a refugee, it is a lot worse to be in a host community than being in a refugee camp. If you are integrated into the community, that means your chances of survival are a lot lower than just being in a refugee camp where the United Nations is responsible for getting you food, water and shelter. As a refugee in a host community, a lot of people just can’t be in a refugee camp. I have been to all of the main refugee camps, and I have been to the largest one. I don’t know that any Syrian wants to be there. It is out in the middle of the desert; nothing is around it. People were surviving in such small quarters. An example would be that 7 to 8 people live in a space the size of half of my studio space (about 12’ x 15’).
So when I arrived in Jordan, I had jet lag, I was feeling sick and thought that I would take a few days off, but I didn’t get a break. That same evening I received a phone call from the lady that I had volunteered with. She said, “Do you want to join us for a medical mission tomorrow morning?” She told me that it was about four hours away, and it would be about 10 to 12 hours of work. I said, “Sure.”
So I went the next morning, and I didn’t know what to expect. It was one of the most shocking moments in my life. There was so much pain and so many stories in one place. Like, it’s enough to read about a sad story to mess up your day, but to be there with the mothers and listen to the children was nearly unexplainable. Language completely fails to describe that feeling. That’s where my painting came into play. There were no words that could describe that moment.
Obviously, it was harder for them than for me, because they live it everyday. I was just observing it. So, I started working with the medical missions at either makeshift camps or host communities.
As a humanitarian, I worked with everybody. It was difficult. Working with children who had lost their families, some who had lost arms and legs, and some who had lost arms, legs and their entire families. I did anything that needed to be done. I painted murals on the school wall when there was nothing else for me to do. I planted gardens. We built tables, and we planted gardens. We even made them toilets, because in the makeshift camp there was nothing. By the end of the day, when we got into the van, none of us were even able to talk…what do you even say.
Brian: What did you learn from this experience?
Soully: It made me realize that no matter how much empathy or compassion I thought I had when I was here in the United States, there was a whole other level once I had been there. I thought I was doing okay by painting and talking about it, but I wasn’t. Painting and talking about it wasn’t enough for me, because I saw the pain first hand. You have to hug them and listen to them, even if they want to talk for hours, you have to listen to them for hours. If they need food, you go get them food. If they want a pack of cigarettes, then they got it. If they want a toy, you make that happen. For 10 weeks, I needed to make things happen for them, even if it seemed impossible.
And, it made me realize a whole new side of myself that I have never known before. I can hope my artwork can touch enough people, so that we don’t forget about the Syrian people.