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The Artist

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Nohad Kalash (36) remembers his childhood as peaceful and pleasant, surrounded by the sound of babbling brooks as they cut through the green hills of northern Syria.

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As an adult, he gets a job as a conductor on the bus from Homs to Damascus. One morning on the way to the bus stop, he sees Zahra. The moment their eyes meet is the beginning of a life together; a life on the run, living under false names as they flee a family vendetta and war.

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Lacking a safe and intimate space, Nohad and Zahra create their own version of the life presented to them: a place filled with love amidst adversity and war.

This is their story.

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Nohad visits Zahra’s brother as often as he can to get a glimpse of the pretty girl. For her part, Zahra makes sure she stands, casually, near the door to the street when she knows Nohad will pass by on his way to the bus.

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After months of exchanging looks, Nohad arranges to meet Zahra in secret. He immediately proposes and she says yes. Elated, Nohad asks his parents to get permission from Zahra’s parents. Each time, her parents find a reason to object because Nohad is poor.

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Years pass. Nohad gets so desperate that he asks Zahra to elope with him. She initially refuses because she knows she will never see her family again. But after her parents tell her she has to marry her cousin, she agrees.

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Zahra and Nohad run away into the hills In the middle of the night. If Zahra’s family finds them, they will be killed. So they live under false names and move from village to village.

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Nohad is hired as a guard on a farm owned by a large family. The couple is poor but happy. In his free time, Nohad starts growing fruit and vegetables and gives the produce to the farmer. He soon becomes a friend of the family.

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Zahra has just given birth to their second child when the owners of the farm find out about their elopement and suggest mediating between the families. They succeed and Nohad officially marries Zahra, who cries tears of happiness at being reunited with her family.

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When the war in Syria breaks out, Nohad and Zahra hide people fleeing Assad’s regime on the farm. Occasionally, officers from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) come to the farm to collect taxes. When the owners refuse to pay, FSA fighters fire at the regime forces nearly, who retaliate with heavy shelling aimed at the farm as a suspected enemy position.

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Fearing for their lives, Nohad and Zahra decide to flee to neighbouring Iraq. A couple of weeks later the farm is destroyed by the Syrian army, killing everyone present.

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Nohad and Zahra arrive in Domiz refugee camp in the freezing cold. With no papers, they can only get a tent in the irregular area of the camp. Nohad helps new arrivals and in return the relief agencies give him gas for heating.

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After a while, Nohad opens a little shop selling roses and make-up. Then he works for the water services handing out water to other refugees. He builds a fountain next to his tent and starts to raise pigeons. Every morning he opens the cage, feeds the birds and spends time with them before going to work.

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Then Nohad decides to join the Peshmerga forces fighting the Islamic State. He goes off to the frontline for ten days, then comes back to the camp for ten days to recuperate.

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Over the years, Nohad and Zahra borrow money from other refugees to build a house. Little by little, Nohad designs features, buys materials and builds his house with the help of construction workers.

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The house is like a hidden ‘palace’, a dreamy escape from the harsh and violent world that surrounds them. Nohad takes special pride in the garden.

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Like many Syrians, he loves the trees and flowers; they are like friends to him. If they are happy, he is happy, but if they are weak because of lack of water, he suffers with them. He cannot imagine a life without the garden, surrounded by green.

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When Nohad is at home, the family, now made up of five members, all work in the garden together. When he goes off to fight, he leaves Zahra detailed instructions about turning the soil and watering the plants efficiently because they have little money to buy water.

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The trees provide the house with shade and the ivy catches the desert dust, while the flowers neutralise the fumes. Nohad designed the garden for his children to play in. He worries that out in the camp they might break something, get dirty playing in the mud or become sick near the open sewers.

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Every evening he lights the barbecue next to the waterfall and the family eats together. The smell of food and the sound of trickling water remind Nohad of sitting next to a spring in the Syrian hills. It relieves his sadness and stress.

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Although some refugees hope for a future in Europe, Nohad and Zahra want to stay in the camp which is close to their relatives. They hope the refugee camp will become a regular city. Nohad is designing an extra bedroom in the shape of a cave. Next to regulating the heat and cold he and Zahra would feel safe there.

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