Indiana State adjunct professor Soulaf Abas, ’08, GR ’13, works to help Syrian refugee children heal with an art and letter exchange with students in Terre Haute. Her work is described as a ray of hope in the midst of the brutality and fighting.
Thomas Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again.
That, at least, is how Soulaf Abas, an adjunct professor in Indiana State University’s department of art and design, feels as a revolution rages in her native Syria.
George Webber, the main character in Wolfe’s 1940 novel, could not return to his American hometown, because townspeople saw distorted depictions of them in his writings and sent the fledgling author hate mail and death threats.
Damascus-born Abas cannot return to her hometown because of her use of art and words to help American children understand the personal side of war, and help Syrian children understand there are people who care about them.
Abas completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Indiana State in 2008. Returning to Syria, she taught at the Arab European University and worked as a translator for two years — before the Arab Spring uprisings began reverberating throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
A painter, Abas originally did not concern herself with the subject matter of her artwork. It was more about growing her skills, she recalls — “allowing every brush stroke to reshape me and introduce me to myself again and again. I painted insects, landscapes and portraits and experimented in watercolor, ink, pastel and oil paint.”
But in 2012, a year after the revolution started in Syria, she once again returned to Damascus to see her family.
“The visit completely changed my perspective and my sense of what home means. It was life changing in terms of how my surroundings had changed and how many people I had lost,” she said of the conditions she found in her native land.
Then, shortly after she returned to the U.S., she lost her uncle, Abas Abas, a writer, translator and lifelong human rights activist whom the Syrian government kept locked up for 15 years as a political prisoner.
“My uncle was one of the most influential people in my life. It was when I lost him that I realized that I lost my home,” she said. “I started creating images in painting and printmaking that depicted what I experienced. For the first time in years, my subject and my process were working together in such harmony that I finally began to understand how far painting can be pushed in terms of process and concept and how healing it can be.
“Casualties become trivial numbers during times of war, and neighborhoods become insignificant remains. My current paintings are an attempt to create a visual memoir of what my beloved home is going through with all the passion, love and sadness I feel inside.”
About a year after her uncle’s death, Soulaf Abas decided “painting was not enough anymore. I had to do more.”
By then a volunteer at Terre Haute’s Ryves Youth Center, Abas hit on the idea of an art and letter exchange between children in Terre Haute and Syrian refugee children in Jordan.
“There are a lot of stereotypes about how Americans see the Middle East and how the Middle East sees Americans. So when I connected these two groups of kids, they saw what their daily life is about. They understood that it’s not like the movies,” she said.
Thanks to an Arts Illiana grant, Abas produced, “Me and You,” a book compiling the thoughts in print and art from 30 Syrian children and 27 young people from Terre Haute.
The book opens with an exchange between 12-year-old Noah of Terre Haute and Khalid Al-Jasem, 10, of Syria.
“Dear Syrian child, I respect you very much and I want you to know you’re not alone. I’m here with you,” wrote Noah.
“Hi Noah,” Khalid responded. “I feel as though you are here with me … Maybe one day we will meet. I like to play soccer. Maybe we can play soccer together.”
Dedicated to her late uncle, her parents and her native Syria, the book raised $10,000 — money that was used to help Syrian refugee children who contributed to the book survive for two months during the winter.
The current situation in Syria and other Arab countries in the Middle East is unprecedented, said Robert Hunter, professor emeritus of history at Indiana State, who has taught Middle East history for 35 years and lived in various countries in the region for seven years.
“Things are in such flux now and so unpredictable. The center has fallen out of most of these countries,” Hunter said. “You also have expatriate communities with hundreds of thousands of Syrians living in Jordan and Lebanon. Some will return, but who knows when. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. It looks like it will be years, and you have to ask yourself what sort of future is there in Jordan and Lebanon and who’s going to provide for them.”
Hunter praised Abas for her efforts to personalize the conflict in Syria.
“To have someone like Soulaf who uses her skills and training to reach out to students here in Terre Haute and have them write letters to Syrian kids in these camps is beautiful. It’s a ray of hope and should be emphasized in the midst of all of the brutality and fighting,” he said.
Abas, who completed a Master of Fine Arts degree at Indiana State in 2013, continues to produce her own paintings, saying she is “basically creating a memoir. I don’t want the places that we lost in Syria to be forgotten. It’s a kind of therapy for me, too. When I paint, I just feel good and I want people to see. I want people to remember that this is happening.”