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Safa is the only woman in Atmeh who can be seen walking on the street in Atmeh unaccompanied by a male chaperone (Photo: Andreas Stahl)
Image: DW/A. Stahl

Looking for solace

Robert Asher, Atmeh, Syria
January 30, 2013

Forced to flee from her Aleppo home, a young woman takes refuge in a rebel-held town in northwestern Syria. In a camp for displaced people, she finds a way to do her part for her country without resorting to violence.


Twenty-three-year-old Safa Faki has been living in the village of Atmeh, five kilometers (three miles) from the Turkish border in northwestern Syria, for seven months now. Before Syria's civil war began, it was a town of 4,000 people. Nowadays 20,000 live there. The town gets only two hours of electricity per day. That's had a detrimental effect on the Faki family's standard of living. It's winter and the temperature outside is close to freezing. The only source of heat in the three-room house is a wood-burning stove.

"Like many families in Syria, we have olive trees, but now we cut them down to get wood to keep warm through the winter," she says. "Before the revolution the Assad regime was bad, but now we have made the choice to live free or die."

Born and raised in Aleppo, Safa watched as the Arab Spring spread from Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. In her mind the idea of a revolution in Syria was close to impossible. When it arrived, and protests against the regime erupted, she was always in attendance.

As Sunnis, it was always a struggle for her family to make ends meet. Her father, a 40-year veteran of the Army, earned only 200 euros ($270) per month. At the same time, he watched younger more inexperienced men with government or family connections rise above him.

A woman escorts her children through the rubble of their destroyed village. Ras al-Ain, Syria (Photo: Andreas Stahl)
Dramatic destruction: A woman escorts her children through the rubble of Ras al-AinImage: DW/A. Stahl

"In the beginning we always chanted: 'The people, we want the regime to go.' I hoped our revolution would be like Tunisia and Egypt, a peaceful revolution," Safa says. "But many times at the protests I saw Shabiha thugs beating people. I saw in front of my eyes how they beat young girls. There were snipers up high in buildings: they shot many people during the protests. Soon there were no more protests."

Fighting in the neighborhood

In late July the battle for Aleppo began. The rebel Free Army moved in to residential neighborhoods, and the Syrian Army responded. Safa's home was in an area called Mashad, adjacent to neighborhoods occupied by the Free Army, which were being shelled by the regime. At night Safa would climb to the roof of her family's home and watch the gunfire from tanks and heavy machineguns light up the sky.

One morning Safa was awoken by a loud explosion only meters from her home. It was the breaking point for her family. They packed their essentials and fled the city for their village home.

Now Safa, her parents, sister, two brothers, their wives and four kids live in the small house in Atmeh. Her other four brothers also share space in the village. It's extremely tight living, and especially hard for the women and children, who were accustomed to living in the city. There's little to fill their days in the countryside.

A destroyed apartment building blocks from Safa's home in Aleppo (Photo: Andreas Stahl)
A building just blocks from Safa's home in Aleppo. The battle for the city has been almost deadlocked for monthsImage: DW/A. Stahl

In the beginning, Safa's days in Atmeh were filled with watching the news about Aleppo. As fighting intensified, it quickly became clear that her family would not be returning to Aleppo anytime soon. Boredom and despair soon enveloped Safa's life.

Traumatized children

In August a camp began to grow on the outskirts of Atmeh, along the border fence with Turkey. The inhabitants, people whose homes had been destroyed and lives upended, came from across the country.

At the camp, Safa was struck by the dire situation of the children. Many had nothing but stones for toys. She started thinking about how she could help.

Children from the camp (Photo: Andreas Stahl)
Many of the children in the camp have not been able to bathe in monthsImage: DW/A. Stahl

"One night I realized what I would do: The next day I would buy colors and papers and go to the camp."

She had taught children before and felt she understood how they think. As a graduate of the Aleppo Fine Arts Academy, she was a certified artist.

Safa began going to the camp four or five days a week and offering drawing sessions. Her goal was to give the children an outlet for their trauma, that is, art therapy.

From the beginning the children were responsive. They drew images of the war: tanks, helicopters and jets attacking their homes, with people dead on the ground. The drawing sessions created a rare atmosphere of joy and entertainment for the children - and somber reflection as the images of the war begin to appear on paper.

Appealing abroad

"The war in Syria will not end soon, and I worry about my people, especially the children at the camp," she says. "I don't understand why the world does not help us, why the governments in America and Europe let Assad destroy Syria and do nothing."

Conditions in the camp, which had grown - like the town - to around 20,000 people, worsened when winter arrived, turning the ground to mud. Still, Safa continues her drawing sessions every Friday, weather permitting. They sometimes go on all day.

She has collected numerous drawings from her wards, and with help from friends in the Netherlands, she is working to organize exhibitions there to raise awareness about the situation in Syria.

Safa wants people to think more about the crimes being committed in Syria, the people killed, the cities destroyed. The children have born the brunt of war, she believes. They have seen things no child should ever have to witness.

Children kneel on the floor drawing (Photo: Andreas Stahl)
Jazmine, 8, from Idlib has lived in the camp with her family for the past five monthsImage: DW/A. Stahl
A boy holds up a drawing he made (Photo: Andreas Stahl)
Abdullah, 9, from Hama depicts a helicopter dropping a barrel bomb on his homeImage: DW/A. Stahl
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