Remember them all: A portrait of Aya

Our small nonprofit, the Memory Project, has been organizing high school art students to create portraits for children in vulnerable situations for a dozen years. The Memory Project gathers photos of children and sends them to art students in US high schools who study the photos to create drawings and paintings which are then delivered, as finished portraits, to the children as gifts. Since the project began in 2004, participating art students have created more than 100,000 portraits for children from 43 countries. I live and breathe this work, but never, ever, have I felt as motivated as I did working with children and teens from Syria living in a refugee camp. So, before anything else, I have to say how very grateful I am to the UNICEF staff members in Jordan who made this possible.

In this case, though, it wasn’t just about providing the portraits. It was also about sending Syrian children and their families a message – one that’s different than the tension often shown to refugees. We wanted to communicate to them that while others in the world might choose fear, we choose friendship. We want to pull together rather than apart.

After all, when gazing for hours at a child’s photo to create a handmade portrait, it is hard not to feel emotionally connected. Impossible, really. Drawing or painting a portrait for anyone is a deeply moving experience, let alone for these children who have been so affected by conflict.

But their photos don’t tell their stories; we can only guess at those. Some stories are visible – like that of the boy whose photo shows a partially missing ear and cheek ­– but most are hidden. We know only that all of the children have lost something: a loved one, a home, or a bit of their childhood.

With that in mind, we hoped the portraits would make the children smile and laugh, that they would add color to the camp, and then travel far into the future.  Maybe someday, we thought, when these kids are adults, living in safe and warm homes with children of their own, the portraits can serve as special memories of their youth.

So after a year of planning, tens of thousands of volunteer hours from our art students, and sending my parents and aunt to Jordan with seven bags full of portraits, I am filled with joy to look at these images of the children receiving them. I am overwhelmed by the beauty of young people, separated by geography, culture, language, religion, and circumstance, but united by kindness. I am in awe of our strange human capacity to care for someone we will never encounter face to face, but only through a photo.

Though behind all that joy and beauty and awe, I am also aware of one girl who was not present when the portraits arrived. She – let’s call her Aya – was born in 2011.  The same year as my daughter. The year the war itself began.

Aya was photographed for this project in August, and her mother came to inquire about the portraits just days before they were scheduled to be delivered in February.  She had been waiting for them with a ruptured heart, as Aya had passed away some months earlier.  Now she was hoping the portraits would help keep a vision of Aya alive in her eyes.

When her mother finally did receive the portraits, we learned that Aya had died from choking on a simple piece of hard candy. Imagine it – leaving your homeland to live in a refugee camp, to keep your small daughter safe from a war, only to lose her to a small sweet that was intended to brighten her day. Before hearing that story, I did not know any parent who had faced such tragedy.

No child should live in a refugee camp, let alone die in one. So I end this post with Aya’s story, as she never got to see her portrait. I would like to invite you to see it. If I had enough copies, I’d give one to everybody who welcomes refugees with open arms, and to everyone who doesn’t. I’d like the whole world to see her. I’d like every parent to see in her every child we’ve ever loved.

We can’t stop the war, now six years on, but we can keep striving with UNICEF to help as many children as possible. Let us act on that – for Aya, and for other children just as irreplaceable.

Ben Schumaker founded the Memory Project in 2004 as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, and it has been his full-time pursuit ever since.

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