What war does to the lives of children…

Green tree 19mmp6

by Luisa Ortiz

Rita, Inside/Outside

Rita, age 8, from Aleppo, is a Syrian refugee child at a the Friendship Syrian school.


David Gross, award-winning Bay Area photographer and educator has worked since 1999 in war zones. His project aims to give a voice to trauma, heal wounds and provide an understanding to what war does to the lives of refugee children. He calls it the “Inside-Outside Project”: an art therapy/photo exercise.

As a photographer and war correspondent in the Middle East and the Balkans, Gross has witnessed injustice and atrocities perpetrated against civilians. He has always wanted to know what happens before and after the first bullet is shot. As a photographer and artist, he has trained his eye to appreciate color, beauty and light. A light that moves him, a form of indirect light that makes Vermeer unforgettable, that make portraits part of the all American tradition of art.

Refugees and their children have captivated David’s imagination as live subjects of conflict, indirect victims of other people’s decisions and unintended actors in a tragedy that has stripped them of their agency, their country, their home.
When David began the project in Turkey, he had an idea in mind: to help refugee children voice what they had left behind, what was hurting them, what they missed, what they did no longer had. Art was going to be the answer to channel that children’s voices in the form of a program of directed exercises.


Monster, Inside/Outside

“When asked about the painting, he said it is about nothing, he said, I means nothing. He said, black is for scariness, and red is for blood. Ezgi asked, is this a painting of a monster? The boy said, yes. Ezgi said, let’s talk with this monster. What you want to say to him? The boy said, I am not afraid of you. Ezgi said, what did the monster say to you?The boy said, the monster says, no, you are afraid of me. Answer him, Ezgi said. The boy said a loud, laughing voice, I am not afraid of you! Khalid said, when you’re laughing he won’t take you seriously. Say what you mean. So the boy said, using an Arabic expression, I will curse your father if you hurt me”. Drawing by Syrian boy, age 11.

The first exercise took place in the Free Syria School in Reyhanli, Turkey. The drawings the children made were violent, graphic and painful. Corpses, bombs, flags and bloody names dominated the white page.

Candy in hand, Inside/Outside

“There is a hospital in the upper right, a mother crying for her son in the lower left. The child in the bottom center was eating a candy bar when a bomb blew his head off. The girl who drew this witnessed it. He remained standing for a few moments with the candy bar after it happened.” Drawing by Syrian girl, age 13.

David was not happy with the emotional state of the children after the drawings the Syrian social worker had the children draw, especially because she offered no emotional support. “We all understood that we needed to direct the flow of emotions and guide the children from experience sharing into opening avenues into the future. Otherwise, we would be opening wounds that would need more work to heal”.
A drawing of a dream for the future by a Syrian refugee child, in which he shoots Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria.

Bashar, Inside/Outside

Drawing by Syrian Refugee Child

After that, David insisted the children not explore their bad experiences unless a skilled therapist was at hand. The second round of exercises was geared toward asking the children what they wanted to be and what they wanted to do in the future. This scenario was less disturbing, but it was not devoid of eloquence. Images of times spent with family and friends, landscapes gone, leaving nothing appeared in the drawings.

Green tree, Inside/Outside

A drawing of “bad things” by a Syrian refugee child in the Free Syria School

After the experiences in Turkey, David visited Beirut, Lebanon, to expand the project beyond the initial idea of drawings and photographs. There, he taught teachers art therapy-based lessons they could use with the children.

Back in the USA, he began an art exchange between Syrian and American children. The exchange serves both as a way to let the Syrian children know the outside world knows of their plight, and to bring attention to the situation of the Syrian children. Two schools have been helping with the pilot art exchange programs are The Berkeley School in Berkeley, and the Jewish Tehiya School in El Cerrito. His idea is to open a drawing exchange and to stretch healing across continents. The children’s’ exchange can also draw in the parents, raising awareness of the Syrian children’s situations.
After years of photographing war, David found that the portraits came naturally as a continuation of his art. They are a new of way of showing issues of war, but unlike much of his previous work, the portraits are the kinds of images that people wanted to see. Bringing a face to the drawings and depth to the ideas shared by the children rounded the experience up. Everything was galvanized by the light: a backlight bringing the features of all the children forward, showing their humanity, evidencing that life is still present, that war does not take life away from people.

Green sweater girl 19mmp

Syrian refugee girl (name withheld) at a the Friendship Syrian school.

These experiences have proven to be culturally challenging for everyone involved in the project. The art therapists have expressed concerns over the psychological well being of the children. Concerns have also been voiced over the implications of showing the children’s drawings as well as making public the identities of their authors. While David decided to publish the pictures separated from the drawings, some of the most conservative families asked the portraits to be taken off the website. Religious issues and perceptions of modesty were expressed.

What is next for the project? The “Inside-Outside Project” was the beginning, but now David has combined the photography, art therapy, and the drawing classes into a bigger idea, under the name “Artivism”, with a new website at

The idea is to create art therapy based lessons and teach refugee teachers to use them. The drawings become part of an art exchange between refugee children and the outside world. David’s photography — combined with the children’s art — is used for publicity, to raise awareness, and to demonstrate the value of the program.

However, David needs a team to make it all possible: for the art exchange to work at a larger scale, for the children of more refugee families to receive art therapy, and for these basic tools of healing to be a part of integration, education and reconciliation.

Where can we see the photos next? The exhibition of photographs and drawings needs to be seen in new spaces. A three-month show at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco is ending soon, and David is looking for new places to show the work.

David Gross is drawn to stories of humanity on the edges of civilization. He found himself photographing war and its aftermath, trying to discover what it means to be a human being by looking at the extremes. His latest work combines documentary photography, portraiture, art, and advocacy to show how war affects people (starting with Syrian refugee children), to create public empathy for people in need. Since 1999, Gross has worked in Europe, the middle east, and Asia, photographing war, genocide, disaster, wildfire, and criminal justice. He has published in major European and American magazines and newspapers.

For more information contact David Gross,

Interested in the art exchange, art therapy, and training refugee teachers?

Interested in David’s refugee children photography?


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