Amina had just given birth by C-section a few days earlier when it was announced from the village mosque that everyone should flee immediately because the village, thought to be a center for "rebels," would be bombed. Most of the men had already fled to avoid arrest. Amina watched the women trudging into the hills with their children, but she didn't know how she could make the trip with her six children: disabled Taghrid, a newborn baby, and four other small ones. She began to hit herself, telling herself to think harder. Then she decided: she had to save those she could. She had to leave Taghrid behind. She pulled her baby into her chest, told the four others to follow close, and said goodbye to Taghrid. She walked away, but wasn’t long gone before she realized she couldn’t desert Taghrid. She returned home, carried Taghrid onto the lawn that had once been a place of childhood games, and sank down to cry, certain that she and her children would die that night. Luckily the village was not bombed overnight, and the next morning, her brother arrived to help the family escape.
Asia's husband had already fled to Lebanon but she didn't want to leave Syria; she loved her homeland and didn’t want to be a refugee. However, after she argued with a soldier who shot one of her cows, soldiers began routinely entering her home, turning over furniture, throwing dishes on the floor and generally harassing her. She even stopped picking up dishes and righting the furniture: “I’m just saving you and me both some work,” she told the soldiers. Finally, her daughter, so frozen by fear, stopped speaking at all, so she decided to leave. She came from a well-to-do background; she set out at 4 a.m. one morning in low heels and a nice dress, her daughter clinging to her back and her son at her side. She didn't realize she would have to walk all the way. She didn't reach Lebanon until 25 hours later. She was exhausted, her shoes long gone, her dress in shreds. Her daughter spoke her first words in a week on the trip; when they saw a soldier, the girl said, "If you are going to shoot my mama, shoot me."
Fedaa is a divorced artist and mother of two girls. While most refugees arrived in Lebanon with nothing save the clothes on her back, she brought a number of her drawings and diaries, as well as an empty package of Kent cigarettes. The pack had belonged to her brother, Mustafa. The two were extremely close from childhood on. Together, they chased chickens and played games, and later he later taught her to smoke. He was part of a group that rescued people from buildings bombed by the regime. He was killed in a mortar attack. She's never been able to visit his graveside, as it is located in an area that was too dangerous. She showed us the cigarette pack and said she continues to imagine that one day, Mustafa will appear at her door.
Fawda, born crippled, lost her leg to gangrene as a schoolgirl. But her parents taught her to never to feel sorry for herself. She never expected to marry so she made sure she was well educated and got a good job. Then she did meet someone at her cousin’s wedding. They talked by Internet for a couple years as good friends, until one day he proposed. Now she has two children. She found the strength to leave Syria, and her beloved parents, after her home was shelled; her daughter's room was hit but the girl survived. She stressed that being disabled—like being a refugee—is more a state of mind than a physical state.
After her village began to be bombed, Alaa’s husband and the other men decided to dig caves into the mountains and move their families there: forty women and children per cave, spending most of their hours within its confines. Even the children bit back the impulse to play in the fresh air — especially when they heard planes overhead. Her kids — all the kids, in fact — began talking about nothing save weapons and war. They screamed and threw themselves onto the ground at the mere sound of an airplane. At first, the men brought their families cracked wheat and water for sustenance, but then the food began to run out. Alaa and her children began to eat grass to survive. Eventually they sold everything they had and raised the $2,000 needed to pay their way across the border.
Asia and her husband ran a market from home, and Asia was a guiding light in her community on issues of childcare and cooking. One Friday in March, with two feet of snow on the ground, Asia was boiling ten gallons of milk to make yogurt when a loudspeaker warned villagers they would be shelled before two hours had passed. “We didn’t even lock our front door,” Asia said. “We ran out within 15 minutes. People were like ants, walking in the snow.” That night, the family slept in a mosque about seven miles away—but not far enough to be out of the range of the shelling, which they heard. After the fourth night in the mosque, she decided to go look once more at their home, though they’d been warned more shelling was likely. It was a difficult visit. Theirs had been a two-story home, spacious and comfortable. Now nearly everything stood destroyed. The only item she found intact was a wall clock that a relative had given them as a wedding gift years—a lifetime—earlier. She tucked it under her arm, never looking back. Now it hangs in her refugee shelter.
The Storytelling Projects
Your Neighbor's Story: Lives of New Americans
Refugee. Immigrant. Foreigner. These words flatten human experience and create distance between us. Personal stories, on the other hand, connect us. Finding or losing love, rebelling against a teacher, having a child, fulfilling a dream, fleeing a war. Be it despair or celebration, we share. We identify. We belong.
At the intersection of art and activism, Your Neighbor’s Story sees community as the wellspring of change. It braids visual art created by artists with powerful narratives of men and women often forced to choose between remaining in the homes they know and love, or saving their families.
This project, foreshadowed with a pilot completed in Lebanon in 2014, was more than a year in the making. It took on a sense of urgency as our country dove into a debate over immigration policies. Your Neighbor’s Story is intended to spark conversations, including between those with differing views. Dialogue has never been more important.
The artists joined both documented and undocumented new Americans and novelist/journalist Masha Hamilton for lengthy interviews. They then created unique pieces that capture memories, bits that might otherwise be lost. Curated by Maya Fell, the project’s hope is to help erode stereotypes, overcome divisiveness and create not only understanding but friendships.
For 2020 exhibition sites and more stories, please visit our
Photo credit: Jacqueline M. Sofia. Logo credit: Lindsay Bolin Lowery.
While working for Concern Worldwide, Masha recruited Lebanese artist Hanane Kai to accompany her on meetings with Syrian women refugees living in northern Lebanon, and draw pieces of their lives as they told their stories. Over many hours, the women cried together and laughed together. These stories and pictures emerged. The stories and drawings were also exhibited at the Beirut Book Festival.
Masha also spoke to men about the changes in their lives due to the crisis, and began to examine how those individual changes are impacting the fabric of society. She is pursuing a project to examine an ongoing upheaval and transformation of traditional gender roles due to the Syrian crisis, exploring those roles through in-depth interviews with refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, coupled a with additional renderings from regional artists.