A picture is worth a thousand words — and these young artists have found a story worth telling. Young Artists for Syria (YAFS), led by Aisha Hyder, is a project aiming to bring light to the Syrian conflict through art.

When Aisha first learnt about the Syrian conflict, she was still in high school. Feeling frustrated and angry, she wanted to come up with a meaningful way to bring the issue to light. She had a passion for painting, and thus, the idea of YAFS was born.

Initially, YAFS was created to help raise money for war-torn Syrians, but now, they use the art of painting to raise awareness on the impacts of war and conflict on people. “Why art?” I asked — surely there are easier ways to educate people. Aisha agreed, but she believes that the visual arts allow Canadians to connect with strangers on a deeper emotional level:

We can tell them all about what is going on at the other side of the world, but it is difficult to care. Tragedy has become part of an everyday narrative that people do not want to wait to listen to. Paintings break the spell of apparent apathy since the audience can interpret the situation for themselves.

For Aisha, this project has been a chance to contribute to society while allowing artists like herself to contribute their talents, and a chance to see the world differently. Sordid foreign affairs reported in newspapers today morph people into statistics; YAFS puts faces to those numbers. The most eye-opening experience for Aisha was when she had the opportunity to spend time painting with Nouran, who is a Syrian refugee and is one of the artists on the team.

Nouran is from Damascus and her depiction of the Syrian conflict was very insightful. This caused Aisha to realize that there is a gap in Ontario’s knowledge on its Syrian refugees. A lot of the facts are misinterpreted or lost by the media. And the young artists came to understand that when people are bombarded with facts, they miss the bigger picture. And when they miss the bigger picture, they become frustrated and walk away.

Young Artists For Syria’s first project helped deliver free psychological first aid to Syrian refugees in Ontario thro

ugh the funds that the paintings raised. Attending a mental wellness workshop run by Al-Qazzaz Foundation for Education & Development (QED), the artists got the  chance to see what their paintings were contributing to. Health care professionals and mental health counselors were invited to offer guidance to the attending Syrian families, on living in a new country after having experienced trauma.

After a successful initial project, this past winter, the painters of YAFS turned their attention to the genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma. The paintings were held for auction at a gallery in downtown Toronto.

Aisha is ambitious, but uncertain about the future of YAFS. For all the members involved, every experience has been profoundly inspiring, yet difficult at the same time. The only thing certain about YAFS is their unrelenting faith in justice. One painting for Burma displayed the words “Allah is watching and He is watching the wrongdoers.” These words, understandably, must be the driving force for the efforts of the young artists. The problems they are trying to solve are so great and complicated that only faith, love, and the divine promise of justice and recompense can push them to keep trying.

After the interview, Aisha took me to a chapel at Western University. The interior was dark and peaceful, but the backyard had an overgrown garden overlooking a steep hill. Last winter, when she was there, Aisha had run down the snowy hill and gotten stuck there. “They closed the pathway now,” she said laughing, “it was a silly thing to do.” I disagreed with her. Her experience with YAFS is comparable to her plunge down the hill — brought to a serene place by the pull of faith, plunged deep down somewhere she never had been before, yet running full speed, fueled by passion.

Aisha wants to become a therapist in the future. With her bright, caring eyes that peer out from underneath her floral hijab, it is as if she is always daydreaming, trying to solve all the problems of the world. She hopes that YAFS’s honest artwork will be therapeutic for the community, healing for the wounded, and eye-opening for the desensitized.

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