Diala Brisly, the guardian artist of Syria's children

Diala Brisly, the guardian artist of Syria's children
Society: An activist and artist, Diala Brisly escaped Damascus for a new life helping refugees, reports AJ Naddaff.
8 min read
20 June, 2017
'I am a child and I refuse to get older,' exclaims artist-activist Brisly [AJ Naddaff]

A year ago, artist Diala Brisly was painting murals inside the tents of Syrian refugees in Lebanon to help children forget about the war. Now she resides in Pélissanne, a picturesque village in Provence, southeastern France, so quiet that few French people have ever heard of it.

While Brisly may now be in France, her mind continues to rest with the children of Syria.

Life as an artist-activist

Brisly was among the few artists taking on an activist role at the beginning of the Syrian uprising.

"Out of the ten artists I shared a studio with in Damascus, I was the only activist. It was really sad but they were terrified," she said. She used to attend protests, deliver medical supplies to hospitals under siege, and design and distribute political posters.

But it all came at a high price. During one protest, she was beaten by mukhabarat [secret state police] with batons, but managed to run away and continued her activism shortly after.

Until 2012, Brisly published political art under the pseudonym Elvis Presley. But after a massacre by government forces in Daraa, she was moved to paint a boy holding a balloon with lost limbs, her first illustration signed under her real name.

"A few activists, and myself, thought that if people were getting arrested and dying in prison, it was shameful for us to hide behind fake names on Facebook," she explained.

"My political artwork differed from most Syrian activist-artists because
it was not made digitally. When I revealed my artwork for the first time,
fellow activists urged me to stop hiding my work and to post more.”
(Leave my last hand and leave us).

Young revolutionary

Brisly's revolution started long before 2011.

At an early age, she began rebelling against both the Syrian school system and her parents.

"When I moved to Syria from Kuwait at age 10, I was surprised to find that my school resembled a prison. Then I began wondering, why do I have to wake up every morning to recite strange chants like 'long live Hafez al-Assad' and 'our mission is to destroy terrorists like the Muslim Brotherhood?'

"When we had classes to learn about Hizb al-Baath [The Ba'ath Party], I always tried to escape by jumping from the bathroom window."

Brisly recalls tension between her parents during her childhood. Her siblings encouraged a divorce so that the incessant fighting would halt.

Years later, when her father discovered Brisly's involvement in the revolution, he blocked her on Facebook because he, too, was terrified of the consequences. Her mother has long sustained good relations with the regime.

Nonetheless, Brisly's revolutionary efforts strengthened while the situation in Syria turned more precarious by the day, and her friends began getting arrested. She recalls a distinct moment that compelled her to finally leave.

"One day, I was driving to deliver medical supplies and I had serum under the car seat, which was enough to be sentenced for life. I was stopped at a checkpoint, and at that moment, I saw my life flash before my eyes," she said. 

"I was shaking uncontrollably but luckily for me, one of the soldiers was drunk, and told me that beautiful women like me should not be stopped, so he let me go."

"I had a conversation with my friend last week and we were saying how sad it is that the revolution no longer represents us.
There are so many
groups fighting in Syria now. I wanted to depict what would happen if all the actors were under drugs
so I also drew a piper, who is the
solution" says Brisly

Releasing a sigh of relief, Brisly was quickly smuggled to Istanbul. There were many activists there and she wanted to continue her work. But she soon grew tired of the language barrier; she did not fit in with the large bureaucratic Syrian charities funded by Islamists, and she felt useless.

While there, she received a call that her brother, who she practically raised, had stepped on a landmine and died while being forced to serve in the Syrian army.

"I lived with my brother for a long time and I felt like I had to help him - but I didn't, so I felt guilty. Because of this, I respect and appreciate life more. When I dance or paint, I remember him," she said. 

There is a playful element to Brisly's drawings, "I want to say what I
want to say, to walk like a penguin, to sing out loud in public places."
[AJ Naddaff]

Depression set in following her brother's death.

So Brisly set out to Beirut to visit her sister and friends. She met a woman who was opening a public library for Syrian refugee children in Arsal, Lebanon, a town near the Syrian border, and she promised to return to paint a mural.

"I thought, life for Syrians is really tough here. They need any help they can get. This is the place I have to be."

Art as therapy

Brisly kept her promise, returning to Lebanon with a two-year deadline for moving on - no more, she was certain, because the "materialistic lifestyle" of Beirut did not suit her. After completing the Arsal mural, she began painting murals as a volunteer project in refugee camps, sometimes painting with children, and holding workshops.

Brisly admits that it can be difficult working with traumatised children.

"They draw dead people; their paintings are full of blood; they paint shelling, tanks, and, in the best scenario, they draw about separation," she said. "It's important for me to talk to them like adults, because that's what they are now."

Though countless children inspire and influence her work, one experience in particular sticks.

"I was working inside this empty school, so children in the courtyard began wondering what I was doing. They started throwing stones at the building which made a distracting noise. I ran out and declared a friendship pact with the group of children, promising them that if they stopped throwing rocks, in return I would give them a tour.

"When I showed them round inside the school, one little boy said to me, 'Miss, I have seen many cartoons like Mickey Mouse but yours is the best one ever.'" Holding onto this memory keeps her motivated, she says.

Finding refuge

With her passport quickly expiring and the risk of being stuck in Lebanon forever, Brisly was encouraged by friends to apply for asylum in France - understood to be the only country accepting refugee applications separate from the UN.

Through a mutual friend in Beirut, she met a French girl studying at the prestigious American University of Beirut (AUB) who offered her a place to stay at her parents' home in sleepy Pélissanne. Seeking asylum was a laborious decision and process, as she did not want to abandon her work in the refugee camps.

After nine months of waiting, she was granted a visa and packed her bags. "I didn't have a good childhood," she said. "So I want to have a good rest of my life."

Artist and activist Diala Brisly quickly loses her inhibitions as she jumps
in the air in front of a mural she painted at her new home in
Pélissanne, a picturesque village in southeastern France
[Dominque Aubert]

So far, France has been serene, exactly what was needed after undergoing the psychological impact of war. 

"People are very generous and nice. Best of all, when they find out you're from Syria, they don't treat you any differently."

Living with a host family was a gamble, but Brisly feels like it was the best decision she could have made. She is now embraced as part of that family. 

"I don't like very much to share all my family for a long time with someone I don't know. This is my fault, but I admit it," explained Dominique Aubert, her host father, a professional photographer. "But after having Diala in the home for a while, I have accepted that she is no longer a stranger, she is like my daughter now, and she can stay forever."

Though Brisly feels perfectly at ease and grateful to be in France, she is trying her best to preserve cultural aspects of her Syrian identity too. "Now, because I am being hosted by a French family, I feel like I only want to cook Syrian food. I want to both thank them and show them something about us, so food is the easiest way."

She spends most of her days in a detached cabin in the garden where she currently resides, keeping herself busy by working non-stop on various projects dedicated towards empowering the children of Syria.

While in France, she is currently working on an animation film for the White Helmets, and an illustrated book about child labour. She has also accepted a six-month art fellowship in Berlin to make a children's comic book, and has painted and shipped two large murals to refugee camps in Lebanon.

"I thought, if I painted these on a canvas before, why can't I do this here and send it to Lebanon?"

Dominique added: "Her message is so powerful that you really can not be untouched by this, you can't. How? She is taking care of those kids when so few people in the world seem to be doing anything."

Brisly chimed in: "I am trying my best."

AJ Naddaff is an Arab Studies and Political Science major, a French Teacher and Research Assistant for the Arab Studies Chair at Davidson College.

His current book project documents Syrian artists in diaspora and their intellectual response to various crises.

Follow him on Twitter: @ajnaddaff