Comic artists draw out stories from resettled Syrian refugees

June 26, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
A Canadian comic book collective is working closely with refugees like Mohammed Alsaleh, who fled from Syria, to help them tell their stories. Special correspondent Stefan Labbe and producer Lauren Kaljur report.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: a unique look at the victims of war in Syria.

In 2015, Canada began that country’s largest refugee resettlement program since the Vietnam War. Over the last year-and-a-half, 45,000 Syrian refugees have made Canada their home, more than double those admitted in the U.S.

Now a group of comic book artists are documenting refugee stories through their art.

Special correspondent Stefan Labbe and producer Lauren Kaljur have the story.

STEFAN LABBE: In 2011, Mohammed Alsaleh joined the wave of anti-government protesters sweeping across Syria.

MOHAMMED ALSALEH, Syrian Immigrant: It was the first time in my life where I hear my voice saying the word freedom in public. It was the first time in Syrian history where a picture of our dictator is being torn in public. And I was taking that shot. That was one of the most amazing days of my life.

STEFAN LABBE: That footage would prove his undoing, as the government began to crack down on protesters.

MOHAMMED ALSALEH: Now they are attacking us.

STEFAN LABBE: Now a refugee in Canada, Mohammed finally has the chance to tell his story, with the help of a nonprofit graphic arts collective.

JONATHON DALTON, Comic Book Artist: Cloudscape finds people who have come to Canada as refugees and matches them with comic book artists.

STEFAN LABBE: Jonathon Dalton is an established comic artist. He usually draws stories about fantasy and historical fiction.

But this time, Mohammed’s life is on the page, a story that begins with revolution.

MOHAMMED ALSALEH: I was studying medicine at Homs University during the Arab Spring. The first time I was arrested was for filming pro-democracy protests. So, protesters would have a flag with three stars.

JONATHON DALTON: Three stars, OK. I wasn’t paying close enough attention.

STEFAN LABBE: With funding from the government, the comic book artists will work closely with refugees to create a massive one-page comic.

JONATHON DALTON: This is your story, so I want you to have as much control over how it’s told as possible.

STEFAN LABBE: When they’re finished, the refugees’ story will be displayed in bus shelters all over Vancouver, Canada.

JONATHON DALTON: By drawing people as cartoons, I think you can engage the reader to see themselves in the story.

STEFAN LABBE: But it’s about more than putting yourself in a refugee’s shoes. For Mohammed, comics have the power to animate a humanitarian crisis many have grown numb to.

MOHAMMED ALSALEH: When you try your best to share a story about the worst crisis after World War II, sometimes, you feel that language is not actually capable of doing that.

JONATHON DALTON: I think that’s what I drew.

STEFAN LABBE: After shooting the protest footage, Mohammed had no idea his future would take a dark turn.

MOHAMMED ALSALEH: I tried my best to say out of trouble, but …

STEFAN LABBE: Assad’s security forces stormed Mohammed’s classroom as he was writing an exam. He was charged with terrorism for documenting the uprising.

MOHAMMED ALSALEH: Those pictures that I was able to upload were all over the news, all over the world.

STEFAN LABBE: Mohammed was blindfolded and shuttled off to one of the regime’s many detention centers. Over the next 150 days, the guards would deprive him of food and sleep, chain him from the ceiling and beat him inside of a tire.

And when he wasn’t being tortured, he was crammed into small rooms with dozens of other prisoners.

MOHAMMED ALSALEH: I survived, yes. They managed to change me. They managed to terrorize me.

STEFAN LABBE: Mohammed was released from prison when his brother bribed a judge.

MOHAMMED ALSALEH: When I got my freedom back, all I wanted to do was see my family. I also wanted to say goodbye. I needed to get as far away as I could.

STEFAN LABBE: He jumped into a taxi and fled to Lebanon.

MOHAMMED ALSALEH: When you’re on survival mode, like where you’re not whole, it was because of that, that I decided to leave Syria. It was because of that I decided that I’m not going to risk being detained and tortured again.

STEFAN LABBE: He would soon be chosen as one of the first 200 Syrian refugees to be granted asylum in Canada.

MOHAMMED ALSALEH: When I arrived in Vancouver, I had only the clothes on my back.

STEFAN LABBE: Three years on, he’s built a life for himself here. Now Mohammed helps other refugees newly arrived in the city, people like Osama, who just arrived from Syria with his wife and four kids.

Today, Mohammed is helping them start over. He signs them up for health insurance, helps them open a bank account, and teaches them how to withdraw money from an ATM.


STEFAN LABBE: But with the cartoon project, he wants to reach beyond the refugee community.

MOHAMMED ALSALEH: I think it’s very important to, you know, share my story, other immigrants to share their stories as well, in order to demonstrate we have this beautiful place because we welcome others, because we are the positive example in a — in a very bad world.

STEFAN LABBE: With his family scattered across Turkey and Germany, and anti-immigrant movements on the size, Mohammed is focused on one thing, reuniting his family here in Canada.

For PBS NewsHour, I’m Stefan Labbe in Vancouver.