The Colorful, Nationalistic Drawings of Kurdish Kids Fleeing the Islamic State


This story is over 5 years old.


The Colorful, Nationalistic Drawings of Kurdish Kids Fleeing the Islamic State

While photographing refugee camps along the Syrian-Turkish border, Olivia Kortas spent time with the children who were forced to flee their hometown of Kobane.

The Kurdish tricolor drawn by a young boy All photos courtesy of Olivia Kortas.

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany

For a recent college project, Olivia Kortas spent three weeks in various refugee camps on the Turkish-Syrian border. The political journalism student wanted to write about the hopes, future plans, and everyday lives of Kurdish refugees. The children who lived in the camps had been there for so long they didn't even want to return to their hometown, Kobane. The camps were all they knew. In order to see things through their perspective, she asked them to draw some pictures of how they were feeling.


We sat her down to ask about the project.

VICE: How did end up working around the Syrian border? Had you dealt with the Islamic State as a topic before leaving?
Olivia Kortas: I actually spent a long time researching IS propaganda in Europe for an article I was writing. I follow all the latest developments, too, of course. This project wasn't so much about IS, though—it was more focused on the Kurds. Many of the camps were organized by Kurdish groups. I wanted to write about what life was like for the people that had been there for nine months. I wanted to see what their daily life was like and what future plans they had. I was interested in knowing how different Kurdish groups help these people. I was actually writing about the parliamentary elections that happened in Turkey on June 7, too. The campaign trail was especially emotional in the Kurdish areas. A lot of people were hoping that the pro-Kurdish HDP would win seats.

So how is daily life in the camps?
There are several different refugee camps and everyday life is quite different depending on which one of them you live in. Refugees who have lost a lot of family members live in slightly more comfortable camps known as "container camps." The mood in those camps is a bit calmer because people aren't even considering returning home.

I spent a long time in a camp that was only a couple of miles from Kobane. People were more tense there—they seemed very unsettled. There's only about 120 of the original 900 tents left standing. People are heading back to Kobane in droves.


In general, things follow a routine in the camps. Breakfast is distributed in the morning—bread, olives, and sometimes a bit of cheese. Children are in charge of cleaning the toilet facilities and collecting trash on the camp pathways.

A small group of refugees cook lunch for the entire camp. Dinner usually consists of bean soup, salad, and bread. Folks tend to take shelter from the heat by spending the afternoons in their tents. The camp, made entirely from tents, is about seven miles from the closest village, Suruc. There isn't a lot for the people do there, really. A volunteer teacher from Suruc comes two or three times a week to teach the Latin alphabet, as well as Turkish and Kurdish. Some of the refugees work for local farmers and earn a bit of money in that way. More or less everybody is just preparing to head back to Kobane, though.

How did the kids feel about being in the camp?
A lot of the kids in the camp act very grown-up. They're very independent. They cook, clean, take down tents and help the camp workers wherever they can. The younger children are very playful and lively. They craft kites out of plastic bags and the weeds growing around the watering holes. Some of the children would actually rather stay in the camp than go back to Kobane. There's nothing waiting for them there other than the ruins of their houses.

The relationship they have with their parents in Kobane is different to the one they have here in the camps. The parents have different interests back home—they don't care about things like games or drawings. They're more proud of the children when they sing about Kobane or YPG and YPJ's struggle.


The children attended art class, right?
Yeah. An international aid worker gave the children some crayons and a few pieces of paper. It was right about when I arrived at the camp. A worker asked if I could look after the children for a few hours. I just supervised them and let them draw whatever they wanted. The whole thing happened in a gray tent with ten wooden benches and 20 chairs packed into it. A few of the young children began drawing furiously. They were all screaming for three colors—red, green, and yellow. There was only one of each in the communal pack that the Romanian aid worker had brought.

So the drawings ended up being really similar?
Most of the kids wanted to draw with those colors, yeah. They're the Kurdish colors, the colors of their homeland. They're the colors of the fighters that liberated Kobane. The drawings were almost entirely political. It was as if the kids were competing to see who could fill up the sheets of paper the quickest. They had a lot of fun—they were all so proud.

Scroll down to see the drawings.

The only picture completely drawn in blue. In the background you can see houses and, in the middle, an explosion.

Nine-year-old Nesrin told us that this was his home, Kobane.

Kobane is written in Arabic in the middle of the heart. The elephant in the right corner is holding a YPG flag.

Some of the kids didn't draw political symbols or flags but they only used Kurdish colors.

Ciwan drew a bridge with a dove sitting at the end.

A red star on a green triangle is the flag of the Kurdish women's militia.