It is a chilling depiction of the pain of separation: the towering and bearded figure of an ISIS fighter fills the space, brutally cutting off a Yazidi mother from her daughter.
The message in the artwork seems even more profound because it comes from a group of refugee women with no previous experience of drawing, or even reading or writing. Working under the brief tutelage of the artist and One Young World Ambassador Hannah Rose Thomas these women have found a new way to give vent to their sorrows and to express their defiance in the face of almost unimaginable terror.
All of the class in the Jinda (Kurdish for “New Life”) Center, a rehabilitation facility in Iraq, have suffered at the hands of ISIS, which in 2014 overran the principal Yazidi city of Sinjar and the nearby village where the women lived. ISIS massacred thousands and took large numbers captive, many of them women and children. One of the refugee women at Jinda had been captured and sold to 15 different men.
Hannah arrived at the centre on 21 July and was there for the poignant 3 August anniversary of the fall of Sinjar, an event so traumatic for the Yazidis that several women had marked it in tattoos on their skin. “There is a real sense that the international community is not doing enough to help the Yezidi people or to bring ISIS to justice. It is estimated that there are still over 3,000 Yezidi in captivity,” Hannah reflected.
For two weeks she encouraged the women to express themselves through painting. “They grew to really love the process,” she says. “The silent concentration in the room was tangible.”
The results were also remarkable. Nazu, a women in her 20s who had lost both her parents in the killings, painted herself with bloody red tears falling down her face and into her mouth, reflecting a belief that her crying would one day allow her to smile once again.
Amid the sorrow was also defiance. One 13-year-old girl “wanted an image of strength”, says Hannah. The girl’s mother is still in ISIS captivity. Another refugee artist painted her tears in gold, she said. “Their paintings convey dignity, resilience and deep, deep grief.”
Hannah is now painting her own portraits of the women, from photographs, and hopes to exhibit them alongside the work of the Yazidi women. A graduate in Arabic and History, she was 18 when she began selling her paintings to fund her humanitarian work, which she has undertaken in Mozambique, Sudan, Madagascar and Jordan. More recently she painted refugees in the notorious “Jungle Camp” at Calais; they were shown last year at The Crypt Gallery in London in an exhibition supported by One Young World and marking UK Refugee Week.
Her work seeks to humanise individuals who are more often described in terms of statistics.
She travelled to Iraq with clinical psychologist Sarah Whittaker-Howe, who has been working alongside Hannah recording testimonies of the Yezidi women. The funds for the project were raised through the support of a UK-based non-profit group The Knitting Circle. “I had heard about the Yazidis and wanted to do something with them to help in some way and raise awareness as doing the art project,” she says.
Although the women were a little reluctant at first to take part in the project, they so embraced the opportunity that they have continued to paint since Hannah’s departure.
“They were so glad to have come. It has lifted them out of their sorrow for a brief time to be able to focus on creating something beautiful,” she says. “It has given them a sense of dignity again and made sure that their stories are not lost. They know they have not been forgotten.”