When Khensa Mejias saw the little girl in the hijab, she knew she was the one for her.
The little girl in the photo lives a world away from Mejias, a North High School sophomore art student. Mejias doesn’t know much about her beyond some rudimentary information typed on a strip of paper slipped into an envelope along with the snapshot.
Her name is Sara. She’s 10 years old. Her favorite color is yellow.
But in her eyes, Mejias gleans more.
Sara’s sad. She’s so sad that she can’t cover it up. She can’t fake a smile. Her life has been upended, her childhood stripped away. She’s been forced to grow up way too soon.
She looks much older than 10. Maybe that’s because she’s seen more than any ordinary 10-year-old.
She’s a Syrian refugee who fled her war-torn country to seek asylum elsewhere. Her photo was included in a package with 19 others and sent across the globe to Oildale, where a group of 20 art students at North High agreed to participate in the Memory Project.
The project asks kids facing great adversity – including neglect, abuse, loss of parents and extreme poverty – to have their portraits created by high school art students and sent back to them. Hopefully, for the North High students, it's a memory to last a lifetime.
This is the second year Mary Bradford’s class has participated.
“Some of these kids didn’t know where Syria was on a map,” Bradford said, recalling when she introduced the idea to her third period art class.
Just five volunteered last year to create portraits of orphaned children from Honduras. This year, 20 volunteered. “These kids are deep thinkers. They surprise me every time.”
Mejias took a thoughtful approach to Sara. She put pencil to paper about three weeks ago, beginning to sketch the soft contours of her face, shrouded in the dark hijab.
Other students chose to embellish their portraits with colorful backgrounds laced with flowers or abstract designs, oceans of water that some of the refugees perhaps have never seen. They wanted to lift their spirits and show them things they’d perhaps never experienced.
Mejias chose to dab just two spots of color in Sara’s portrait: one in a yellow flower, and another for her eyes.
“Maybe not everything in the world has color, but you can always pop,” Mejias said.
She imagines Sara as the caretaker of her family. Maybe she babysits a little brother or sister. But deep down, she’s playful, Mejia said.
“When she gets older, she can do whatever she wants, be whoever she wants. She doesn’t have to care about what other people think,” Mejia said. “These kids have their childhoods ripped away, but things happen in life. You have to overcome. Life can only get better.”
A couple of tables away, Keelan Wheeler created an eye-popping portrait of a boy named Husain set against a colorful backdrop of red roses.
“It’s my vision of a flower. I wanted something beautiful and vibrant,” Wheeler said. “The Middle East is so desolate, I wanted to give him something he’d never seen before.”
Andrew Barber felt the same way. He used a fine point pen and watercolors to create his portrait, an orange starfish and seashell floating in a sea of water in the background – creating something he's sure his subject, Hamzea, had never seen before.
“I’m hoping he’ll find some sort of peace and know that somebody cares about him and what's going on in his life,” Barber said.
Barber said something about Hamzea gravitated toward him.
“He was smiling, but I could tell he was emotionally hurt and putting on a face,” Barber said.
That was what most student artists surmised from the snapshots they’d been supplied. Paige Hoffman, a senior art student, chose Shyma’a – a grinning brunette wearing braids in her hair – because her favorite color was pink. None of the other refugees listed it as their favorite color, Hoffman said.
But when she started looking at her photo, she noticed Shyma’a’s eyes were welled with tears, her smile forced.
When Hoffman sketched her portrait, she was sure to leave out the tears, and add plenty of pink. She even smudged a bit on her hair.
“That was an accident,” Hoffman said. “I hope it brings a smile to her face.”