Deep calls to deep
All your waves and billows have gone over me. Psalm 42
The first thing I noticed were the shining eyes.
My wife Jill and I had just entered a shipping container which had been converted into a sewing school for Syrian refugees camped in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. It was our first visit. We were awkwardly aware of appearing like compassion tourists, but our misgivings are soon allayed by a warm welcome.
The woman with the shining eyes had fled with her family from her now-destroyed home town in Syria, joining one and a half million refugees who try to eke out a living in shanties and tents scattered across the farmlands. She was 26, with 5 children. Behind her eyes there was great pain from past atrocities and menacing fears for the future. For she, and the younger girls in the sewing school, are non-citizens in their country of refuge, excluded from education and from the economy. And yet there is hope.
Our friend Izdihar, who had invited us to visit the sewing school, started up a volunteer organization called Together for the Family (TFF) at two refugee camps in her home city of Zahle. Izdihar was moved by the seemingly hopeless predicament of the Syrian refugees and established vocational training classes, early childhood education for children with disabilities, and teenage trauma counselling in response.
Having no skills in Arabic or in needlecraft, I could only watch on as the young women gather to show us their handiwork. I was amazed by their warmth, their surprising sense of hope, and their resilience in the face of great turmoil. Finding an old envelope and pen, I suggested to our shining eyes friend that I draw her portrait. This is met with enthusiastic approval, and soon I found myself drawing and giving away rough sketches of these lovely students. They were also happy for Jill to take their photos for further portrait studies back in Australia.
To draw on the spot just seemed the obvious and intuitive thing to do; a silent affirmation that here before me are people of great dignity and courage.
In following days, I met more of the young refugee boys and girls, and led a few drawing workshops with them. We had a ball.
Meanwhile, outside the camps, Lebanon was in free fall. Already racked by a long civil war (which ended in 1990), now the economy and the banks were failing, and government corruption had become so entrenched that a people’s street protest movement (the October 17 revolution) had begun. The next devastating blows, Covid 19 and the Beirut port explosion, were yet to come.
Upon returning to Australia, I could not stop thinking about these extraordinary young people. So I embarked upon a series of portraits (using the reference photographs) of those whom I had met. The term that kept repeating in my head was a compulsion to honour them, and their incredible resilience.
From the outset, I was determined to not portray these young refugees just as victims. Or to sentimentalize their predicament, or to place them on a pedestal. I had learnt much from them, not least being their strong spirit amidst great danger and uncertainty.
The challenge therefore was to capture something of their inner life with honesty and sensitivity.
The first group of portraits made focussed on each student’s character and their engagement with needlework or with drawing. However, when the Beirut port erupted (in the third largest man-made explosion in history), I realized the pressing need to give voice to the danger and menace that these young people face on a daily basis. Hence fractures appear in the portraits, referencing in some ways ancient wall frescoes. I realized that painting these portraits could only tell a small part of these amazing young people’s stories, but it was a project that I was compelled in my heart to make.
What, then, did I learn through the process?
The big takeaway is that I have so much to learn from the strength of spirit and the fragile beauty of these young refugees. While on the one hand they are like kids everywhere, very few have had to face the trauma and the present danger that these young ones live with.
Meeting and painting them cast a new and challenging light on my comfortable lifestyle in a rich country. The kindness shown by Izdihar’s team and many other Lebanese folk stands in stark contrast to Australia’s scandalous abuse, neglect and demonization of refugees.
I am reminded that art can play a vital role in drawing together and learning what is precious in humanity. The art critic Robert Hughes once observed:
“The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and occasional nastiness, … and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning.” (The Shock of the New).
Art provides a space where some of the unsaid yearnings of being human can get air. To quote Ben Quilty:
“For me, that’s the core role of art in our society — of music and film and theatre and the visual arts – to remind each other about humanity.”
Portrait painting is largely about paying close attention to the eyes.
Even in the short time with the young refugees of Zahle, I saw in their eyes something compelling: a fragile beauty amid chaos, a beauty that makes a call upon us. It seems to me that the call is to a higher view of what it means to be human, and a higher way of being humane to each other. Above demeaning the ‘other’, above politics, above platitudes and above cynicism.
Izdihar and her volunteers, following one from Nazareth who was once a refugee himself, see every day the shining eyes and the heavy hearts.
And yet there is hope. For in each refugee’s eyes they can still see the image of God.
Ian McGilvray Autumn 2021