In October of 2011, I created the San Francisco Veterans Mural Project (Veterans Alley), which allows U.S. military veterans to paint their own stories on the public walls of an alley in the city’s Tenderloin District.
The project was created to give voice to the Tenderloin’s veteran population, which has long been oppressed, and suffered due to their veteran status, chronic homelessness and self-medication through drugs and alcohol.
Since its inception, the mural project has created a dialogue between the society-at-large and the formerly voiceless veterans population. This communication, facilitated through art, has raised the awareness and understanding of the effects of trauma and the true reality of war within the community.
During the summer of 2012, myself and several of San Francisco’s homeless youth, who were living with the trauma of street life, painted a mural in Veterans Alley to help raise awareness concerning the plight of the Syrian people and the massacre in Homs, Syria. During this massacre, government forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad killed more than 200 men, women and children.
This act of showing solidarity with the Syrian people, who are presently suffering through the most devastating war of the 21st century, began a three-year conversation with community members and activists in the United States, Europe and ultimately Syrian refugees living in the Turkish city of Antakya, located 40 kilometers from the Turkish-Syrian border.
Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, more than 4.4 million Syrians have fled the chaos and destruction gripping their country—contributing to the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II. With more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees within its borders, Turkey is experiencing the creation of new vibrant Syrian communities in neighborhoods like the Fatih District in Istanbul and the low-cost housing areas of Antakya—the ghetto. During the winter of 2014, I was invited by the “new” Syrian community in Antakya to paint a mural on one of the community’s four schools that educate 2,000 displaced Syrian children ranging in age from 4-17.
With well over 75 percent of Syrian refugees identifying as women and children, there is an overwhelming need to provide quality education to these displaced school-aged children, many of whom are orphaned.
The Turkish educational system, which is considered very modern, does not have a formalized program for teaching a bi-lingual curriculum in both Turkish and Arabic (which most Syrians speak). With no formalized educational system or proper immigration documentation to enroll in Turkish-speaking schools, most Syrians living outside of United Nations refugee camps are left with few options.
In the city of Antakya, a Syrian community is solving this problem by simply creating their own educational system. Men and women, who before the war were educators, architects, engineers, religious leaders and activists, make up the backbone of a community-based effort to educate their own children in Turkey. I lived within this community during my time spent in Antakya, and I was afforded the unique opportunity to hear these stories of anguish, trauma and harm that the Syrian people have suffered at the hands of their own government and foreign fighters who have claimed the lives of over 220,000 Syrians since the war started.
As I began my journey, I knew that I was bringing with me a wealth of experience in helping heal trauma, for I myself am a U.S. military veteran who creates art with fellow veterans, but this would be the first time to actually work so closely with civilian populations who face the realities of war from an entirely, almost innocent, perspective.
I am also a resident of San Francisco’s Mission District, which is a neighborhood filled with many immigrants who came to the United States as war refugees from countries such as El Salvador, Chile, Nicaragua and Liberia. These neighbors have been so kind to share their stories with me and inspire me to travel and bear witness to the human triumph over the tragedy of a diaspora caused by war.
Part 2 of “Healing through Art: The Syrian Diaspora,” will share the stories of these community members who are being forced to deal with aftermath of the Syrian civil war. To read part 2, please read the next issue of El Tecolote, which publishes on April 9.
Amos Gregory is a U.S military veteran, visual artist and activist.
Story by: Amos Gregory