This journey began with a family, similar to thousands of families in Syria and likely millions of other families from and within other countries throughout the world that found themselves fleeing their homeland. Their flights on foot, car, wagons, animals and any possible means were reflective of the urgency of having had to leave with only what they could carry on their backs, with children in hand, and in fear for their lives and those of their children, leaving everything else familiar and dear to them behind. The sound of artillery, bombs, armored tanks, soldiers descending upon their cities, towns and villages echoed loudly as they fled, forcing more tears, more fears and absolute horror at what they had been living, left behind for the desecration and destruction that often followed.
For this family, “coming to America” was also only one of the profound experiences in life, that most people who have never experienced but possessed the endurance of steely strength, suffering and stamina that often did not lead to survival. This family, with green eyed children tugging at their Mother and Father’s burdened hands, could only find comfort and the drying of their tears through the sheer will of survival.
It is this story and this family that stirred the hearts of six special California State University San Marcos students, their professor (Eliza Bigham) and our Art Miles Mural Project team to reach out to “Lina” an artist herself, and her passionate determination to help and facilitate resettling refugees in San Diego. It was these students and the family itself that taught so many lessons about love and endurance to young people mostly in their last semester before graduation about the reality of war and the need for peace.
The Art Miles Mural Project began with painting the first of over 4,000 murals on a bullet riddled bedsheet over twenty years ago, so it was fitting that our incredible volunteer artist, (an active duty military man and his family), Marenn Espiritu, would enter the journey after absorbing the story of the students excellent description of the “journey from Syria” by the family, as told to them by me, and as told to me by the students. It was Marenn whose artist and compassionate heart and soul sketched an incredible drawing that came to life touched by the hands of the students, the family, the artist and several members of the staff of the Art Miles Mural Project and Muramid Mural Museum.
The emotional journey illustrates the family’s memories of what was left behind—memories of their city of Damascus that once was a place of beauty, community and cultural heritage. It portrays the stinging memory of photographs being stolen by rebel soldiers, as if their intention was to wipe away the birthright and memories of a life that was left behind to fade and disappear. It portrayed how the suffering of the Father, kept prisoner for a year and tortured would find his way back to his loving family to be reunited and to continue their journey to America.
The memories of the time before the civil war and carnage was what they chose to remember and their insistence that this mural should show the goodness and humanity that existed before the bombs and the soldiers arrived and how those thoughts and dreams would forever live within their them as “home”.
For many of us, the realization that refugees who come here, often do not come by choice and that their birthright glows like a candle and reflects both the horror of having to leave, what it took to get them here and what now seems like an impossible future of return. It seems that the “hope” most would have to return has been faced by this family and the realization of ending the violence must happen before any rebuilding of their society could follow. It was easier for them to remember the good and not the bad and to desire for all of us to know that their country was not reflective of the rubble we see on our daily newscasts—that the politics and the war mongers could never take away the culture that would always live in the minds and hearts and souls of them.
I loved hearing from the students about their feelings and emotions and the awakening of their intellectual and academic experiences now exposed them to the reality of war and its impact on people—like the Mothers, Fathers, and Children they met through painting with one another. It is this lesson in life that the real “journey” can make a difference in the future of us all. The reality of knowing that war and violence only leads to suffering and often death, but that no bombs or bullets can ever erase what history has established when it comes to culture and most of all “humanity”. The fact that humans are capable of killing one another is horrific in and of itself, especially to young idealistic university students, was a lesson that many might never experience as most of us live comfortably with security and creature comforts that most of the world can never enjoy. They were magnificent and dedicated and drove miles away to both the community center and the museum to learn first-hand about this family’s (and others) flight from war. Their joy at seeing the murals jointly created by the artists, the families, especially the children painting their hands, and students on campus was amazing. I loved seeing the faces of the students as they marveled at the painted hands, the paint on their clothes, the washing of brushes, the laughter, the play, the talking and the sheer joy of a fun healing method that breaks down all barriers, including language, is simple and globally understood. Moreover, the families themselves having an opportunity to share and teach in their own ways, that regardless of the suffering the tearing apart of their country and what they left behind, that love survives and that rebuilding their lives will also take a village to help them do just that.
Teaching about how art heals is a lesson they will take with them forever as they rise to their own journey that lies ahead after their soon-to-come graduation. It is the ingenuity, innovation and quality instruction by CSUSM that recharges my own will to continue this project as I work with several departments there. It is this collaborative interactive sharing that helps us build better citizens as they go out into the world to pursue their own dreams, and to help others, engage the community and contribute to a more peaceful world because they saw how it can happen.
And I loved how Marenn who came in after hours working late into the night and weekends, could portray the innermost feeling and memories of the family as told by the family and retold by the students and relayed through the family’s sketches and the students notes through me. It showed me how my husband’s legacy of “healing hearts through art” continues and that our quest to support the Culture of Peace will continue always in the hearts of those we interact with and that the meaning of what we do is an absolute need. As I watched some of our military members come through the museum and view the mural, some with post-traumatic stress syndrome, I see their own memories reflect in their eyes and often the lingering look and thoughts of what this “journey” has meant to so many—the families and civilians in the countries they defend, their fellow soldiers and sailors, the people at home, the university students and their professors, the artists that work on these mural stories and themselves who were there or somewhere like that in combat.
Most importantly, I see the portrayal of this family’s journey as that compassion and knowledge that life because of war no matter where or how it happens, leaves millions of refugees as victims. These people are the victims and survivors, who with our help and love found themselves starting over despite the lack of material possessions right down to the photographs that would have like to keep close to their hearts. Lest we forget, their journey, though maybe laced with more violence and suffering than our ancestors, is also like that of so many of at one time “New Americans”.