Syrian artist, war refugee draws portraits of Paris victims

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When Syrian war refugee Lina Mahameed saw TV reports of the recent Paris attacks, she recognized her own story reflected in the brutality.

The 41-year old artist is now drawing portraits of some of the 130 people killed in the Nov. 13 attacks in the French capital, for which the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group claimed responsibility.

Mahameed said they fell victim to the same fanaticism that killed her 16-year-old son Yasser at the beginning of Syria’s civil war.

“When these French people died in Paris, I felt their pain,” she said in her living room in the Jordanian capital of Amman, wearing a speckled headscarf.

“I felt what every mother feels when she loses someone to such a criminal act,” Mahameed said, gesturing with a wine-colored pencil. “Their tragedy is like our tragedy.”

Mahameed found photos of the victims on the Internet, and used print-outs for pencil sketches of their faces: a young blonde girl seated before a meal, a bespectacled man in a green jacket smiling calmly, a dozen people staring straight at the camera.

Mahameed is now filling in the portraits’ colors. She is working in her Amman apartment, where the walls are covered with canvases of beauty and disaster: elks in a golden forest; a frowning clown with a handful of balloons; children behind barbed wire, screaming next to splattered blood; a man clutching a stomach wound; a half-finished painting of Damascus’ Umayyad Mosque, symbolic of home and the cultural heritage she, too, fears is targeted by extremism sweeping the world.

When asked, she brings a portrait of Yasser from the back room on April 24, 2012, Syrian government tanks shells blew up part of the family home in the southern town of Deraa, cradle of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad that quickly turned into a civil war. When the family fled across the street, a sniper killed Yasser. Government forces kept the body for 15 days before the family could bury him.

Mahameed, left with three children, hopes the portraits will warm the hearts of the victims’ families, though she hasn’t figured out how to deliver the drawings. “We are martyrs, and they are martyrs,” she said. “Innocent people don’t have anything to do with politics or other countries.”

Mahameed was encouraged to paint by her father, an architect, and she had her first exhibition at age 14.

She sold paintings in Syria and the United Arab Emirates before marriage. Motherhood slowed her career, but the war brought it to a halt.

After the death of Yasser, the family spent a year on the move, trying to evade street battles. The Mahameeds decided to flee Syria when government soldiers entered their lodging and saw a picture of Yasser with the label of “martyr.”

“They said he wasn’t a martyr, but a terrorist,” Mahameed said.

Troops poured gasoline in their rooms and set fire to the building.

The family left for Egypt where they lived for eight months before Mahameed decided to split from her husband. She flew to Amman in August 2013, along with 16-year-old daughter Ronza and sons Usama, 9, and Rayan, 6.

Mahameed hopes to leave Jordan soon because she is unable to work legally.

Through the tragedies, her art has remained. She believes it can chase away some of the dark images she says have infected the psyches of Syrian children, including that of Usama - whose notebooks are filled with war scenes.

“We must heal psychologically, and draw out these dark ideas from inside them,” Mahameed said.

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