Baraa Arar encourages her students to draw on the walls. Occasionally, she joins them.
The 24-year-old art therapist runs three weekly sessions for children with autism at the Seed of Growth educational center in the town of Nawa, in opposition-held Daraa. It is the only center of its kind in the southern Syrian province.
“Drawing is an emotional release,” Arar tells Syria Direct’s Ismael al-Jamous. “It expresses everything inside us.”
Six months ago, Arar was drawing on the walls of another place: Adra Central Prison, near Damascus.
In spring 2016, government forces arrested Arar at a checkpoint just outside Daraa city. Her husband at the time was a member of the Free Syrian Army, and she was accused of supporting rebel activity.
Following Arar’s arrest, she spent time in a series of Syrian government security branches and Adra prison. During that time, Arar says she was repeatedly beaten and tortured. To cope, she turned to art, drawing using whatever materials she could find.
“They shocked me with electricity. They threatened to kill me and insulted me,” recalls Arar. “When I was upset and feeling trapped, I drew to forget the pain.”
Baraa Arar in her classroom in the Daraa village of Nawa on February 28. Photo by Alaa al-Faqeer for Syria Direct.
Using a nail or a piece of charcoal, Arar traced the shapes of the places and people she loved onto the walls of her cell and scraps of cardboard. She drew her mother, she says, to have someone to talk to.
Six months ago, one of Arar’s relatives paid a bribe to get her out of prison and she returned home to Nawa. There, she returned to her work as an art therapist with renewed purpose.
Now, art is not only a tool to help the children with autism at the center express themselves and communicate visually, but also a way for Arar to work through her own trauma.
“When I am upset, when I remember something that happened in prison, I grab a piece of paper and draw with the children,” she says. “It all goes out onto the paper, and I relax.”
Q: Can you describe treating autism in a warzone?
Bombings and fighting affect autistic children a lot. A child who has autism is many times more sensitive and emotional than other children. The sound of a plane or a bomb can cause huge panic: They start shaking and stop speaking entirely. This requires more care by the family and those who work with these children.
Q: How do you use art therapy to treat children with autism? How does art and drawing affect them?
Drawing in general is an effective and useful method for behavioral therapy for children, especially those with special needs, including autistic children. It is an emotional release, as well as an educational tool we use to teach them colors.
We can tell how the children are feeling—their emotional states—by looking at their drawings. They can express themselves and say what they want through drawing. It helps them increase their focus and allows them to communicate visually.
Baraa Arar and her colleagues work with students in Nawa on February 28. Photo by Alaa al-Faqeer for Syria Direct.
Q: Can you explain when and why you were arrested by the Syrian government?
I was arrested on April 12, 2016. I went to Daraa city to register my marriage with the government and get official civil documentation. My husband [at the time] was with the Free Syrian Army. Once I registered my marriage, my name was linked with his.
On my way home, [government forces] stopped me at the al-Sharaa checkpoint on the outskirts of Daraa city. They said I was the wife of a terrorist. I told them I had done nothing wrong, but they beat and arrested me, [and took] my six-month-old daughter.
Q: What happened after you were arrested?
I was held at security branches in Daraa and Damascus and was finally transferred to Adra Central Prison in Outer Damascus.
At the first security branch, one of the interrogators threatened my daughter. He grabbed her and said: ‘If I held her and burned her with hot coals—what would you do?’ I cried and said: ‘Whatever you want, just leave my daughter alone.’ He said: ‘Go back to your cell and think. You need to answer every question I have for you.’
Other prisoners advised me to send my daughter away, so she couldn’t be used against me. I was able to arrange for her to be taken by relatives in Daraa city.
After they came and took my daughter, the interrogator came to me and started to hit and kick me. He pushed me to the ground, saying: ‘You think that since you got your daughter out, we won’t be able to threaten you? No, you’ll be beaten more.’
I was tortured. They hung me by my wrists from the ceiling for days at a time, to teach me not to be ‘arrogant.’ Getting my daughter out was an ‘arrogant act.’ They shocked me with electricity. They threatened to kill me and insulted me. My interrogator showed me pictures of people—including my husband—and asked me if I knew them.
Q: What were you accused of?
I was accused of rebel activity, of sending information from Damascus to Daraa, of sending pictures and recording things. They said I tried to make soldiers defect, or worked as a nurse [for fighters].
The last thing they accused me of was Jihad a-Nikah, [Ed.: Jihad a-Nikah refers to marriages between women and Islamist fighters, with the primary intent being to pleasure and relieve fighters of their mental stress] and I began to scream, and I told them that I don’t do that and that they can accuse me of anything but that.
Q: You spent two years in detention. What did you think about at the time, and how did you cope with what was happening?
While I was in prison, I would grab some cardboard and sometimes a piece of coal lying on the ground or in the bathroom and draw. I would be in my cell drawing with nails and charcoal.
I have a relationship with art that I inherited from my father, who etched on glass before he was martyred—may God rest his soul—and from my mother who, to this day, draws whenever she picks up a pencil. I loved to see them creating art, and when I picked up a pencil and doodled, they encouraged me.
This deep relationship with drawing truly helped me during my detention. When I was upset and feeling trapped, I drew to forget the pain. I would take charcoal and draw a view that I wanted to see, or my mother. I would sit and talk with the drawing, and feel like I was talking to her.
In detention, I thought of the children I left behind [at the autism treatment center in Nawa]. I wondered if somebody was helping them. I wanted to get out and continue working with them.
Q: What was it like when you were finally released?
[Ed.: Arar says she was released in October 2017, after a relative paid a bribe. She did not wish to elaborate further.]
The day I came home, everyone was happy. Our neighbors and others starting shooting their guns [in the air, in celebration] for me.
The center I work at is right next to my house. When the women I work with there came by and saw the crowd around our house, they knew that I had been released. They ran over and started screaming, hugging and kissing me. They told me that I’d be welcome back at work the next day. I didn’t expect that, after being away for so long. I was so happy when they told me to come back.
The other employees prepared a big party for me at the school. There were teachers and students, and the students all ran to me and started kissing me.
Baraa Arar makes crafts with her students in Nawa on February 28. Photo by Alaa al-Faqeer for Syria Direct.
I loved when the kids saw me. They didn’t forget me. They missed me, too.
Coming back [to school] and drawing again helped me forget everything. When I am upset, when I remember something that happened in prison, I grab a piece of paper and draw with the children just to let out a bit of the emotion. It all goes out onto the paper, and I relax.
Q: How did your time in detention affect your work when you were released?
Being imprisoned made me more resilient. It made me a stronger, more successful teacher.
While I was detained, I had the idea for the children to draw on the walls, and that it is better than on paper. They probably want to do that often. They don’t have the awareness to just draw on a small square. I suggested the idea in the center [when I got out], and it was successful with a lot of children.
In prison, I learned that drawing expresses everything inside us—the thoughts and hidden feelings that we cannot express in words. Drawing shows us in our complete forms.