In a Syrian refugee camp in Istanbul, Yara Almouradi met children with facial scars and burn creams. She wondered how they would be affected after facing war, but then she heard them comparing battle wounds like they were Pokémon cards. Almouradi realized these were not refugees to pity, but people to paint.
Several doors down from the ice cream cone sculpture in the Department of Visual Arts, the faint sound of heavy metal can be heard playing through Almouradi’s office door. With paints, charcoals and walls covered with artwork, she transformed the tiny room into a studio where her expression knows no boundaries.
At 27, Almouradi is a Master of Fine Arts student at Cal State Fullerton. While studying, drawing and painting, she also teaches a beginning drawing class. But her art has found more meaning outside of a studio or classroom.
Almouradi uses her artistry to bring color into bleak situations. From alcoholism to vision problems, she uses paintings and sketches to depict messages words can’t express. However, it’s her work with Syrian refugees that brings light into her art.
Born in Syria, Almouradi moved to the United States at six years old and said that her attraction to art started with doodles and the “Draw with Me” after school Public Broadcasting Service sessions.
“I was one of those students in class that was always drawing on the margins of history notes or the back of my exam in math,” Almouradi said.
After graduating high school, she started a social outreach program called BrickWall at Fullerton Junior College that was designed to bring in different voices, art and stories to raise alcoholism awareness.
Almouradi also worked with a nonprofit in Pomona called Medical Network Devoted to Service (MiNDS) where she collaborated with two doctors who used their professional connections to help find physicians willing to work pro bono.
Joanna Roche, Almouradi’s mentor and an art history professor at CSUF, said she was inspired by Almouradi’s unfailing dedication and drive to help others. They first met when Almouradi was an undergrad in Roche’s class. Since then, Roche has seen Almouradi transform paint on canvas and charcoal on paper into a voice for the silenced.
“It’s that idea of making your art about something that’s important to you as a human being and as an activist,” Roche said.
In January 2016, Almouradi found a way to use both of her passions when she established a nonprofit organization called Sight and Sketches with her sister Yamam Almouradi.
Sight and Sketches is a mix of her sister’s medical background in optometry and Yara Almouradi’s background in artful expression designed to help underserved communities both locally and abroad.
Yamam Almouradi provides full vision screenings and exams to those who aren’t able to afford them. Partnering with other nonprofits, Sights and Sketches is able to provide glass frames as well.
As an optometrist, Yamam Almouradi understands how vision is pivotal to understanding life. Being Syrians, the sisters knew that this program would be a crucial link between Syrian refugee camps and their new world.
“We understand the culture and the pride they come with, not wanting to ask for things, but desperately needing them,” Yamam Almouradi said.
While the eye exams are happening, Yara Almouradi runs an art station with coloring pages for adults, teens and kids to work on to promote positivity and self-expression. She said that many are hesitant at first, but they quickly realize that it’s more than coloring.
“It’s not childish to sit and color. It’s actually therapeutic,” Yara Almouradi said.
In April 2016, Yara Almouradi and her sister were able to take Sight and Sketches to Istanbul, Turkey to help a Syrian refugee camp. They brought hundreds of glasses frames along with a couple hundred hand-drawn cards and letters from students in the United States.
Yara Almouradi wanted to show the Syrian refugees that there were people who were willing to help.
“It’s a relief for them that they’re seeing people here that are helping. It’s not a hostile environment,” she said.
However, she realized that the refugees were much tougher than she had believed. Their resiliency shifted her artwork.
For the past few years, Yara Almouradi had been working on paintings and sketches about Syria that depicted the pain of war. She no longer wanted to tell stories about their pain, but to highlight their survival.
“I want to re-humanize them. You think this is an abnormal situation? Try being them,” Yara Almouradi said.
She has reached out to survivors and refugees to ask them to tell her their stories, and many don’t want to talk about their time in Syria or their struggle to get out; they want to show the world that life after tragedy is possible and, in many cases, happy.
Yara Almouradi has been telling the story of Mega Arsheed, a Syrian refugee currently living in Stockholm, Sweden. She has sketches of Arsheed doing everyday tasks like cutting tomatoes and tying his shoes.
She grew up thinking that her art was supposed to inspire people; now much of Yara Almouradi’s work is about how others have inspired her.
“What I’ve noticed about the population is no matter where they go, they immediately want to interact, benefit, learn and move forward. They don’t want to linger,” Yara Almouradi said. “If they’re able to, they immediately try to get back on their feet and give back to that community.”