Experience The Horrors Of The Syrian War Through The Eyes Of Kids

A new iPad app features the drawings of refugee children. Some are disturbing, while others are just regular kid drawings of hearts and smiley suns.

On an earnings call last month, Apple CEO Tim Cook tallied up some jaw-dropping sales figures: 237 million iPads sold in four years alone. More people are using the hardware to play games, take pictures, and do business than ever before. And yet, very few iPad users are exploring the device’s potential like photographers David Gross and Mieke Strand.


That could be because Gross and Strand have seen some disturbing things.

And when you download Gross and Strand’s gorgeously designed, free app, you will too: blown-apart bodies, with heads and legs missing, and broken fingers littered on the ground. You’ll see gunmen and women crying. But then you’ll see other things, too: A sun with a big smiley face, a giant red heart, the words “will be the next day better.” The images aren’t photographs. They’re drawn in crayon and marker by Syrian refugee kids who have seen and felt what they’re depicting firsthand.

Between November of 2013 and January of this year, Gross and Strand spent 10 weeks in Turkey with 8- to 12-year-old students who had fled from the Syrian war. The photographers took portraits and worked with art therapists to document the children’s experiences. Some of that work was viewed by high-ranking German and United Nations officials at a conference on Syrian refugees in Berlin last month. Much of the rest, though, now lives on the Inside-Outside Project App, an ever-expanding digital platform that hosts the refugees’ drawings and essays.

Gross, a conflict photographer who has spent the last 15 years documenting everything from war in Kosovo to devastation after the 2005 tsunami in Thailand, says his own experience pushed him to find a radically different publishing route from traditional newspapers or magazines.

“At the beginning of my career, I started covering war crimes and mass graves. And no one wants to see that stuff,” Gross says. “People go see Goya etchings or Picasso paintings of really gruesome things, but they wouldn’t look at a photograph of it. I wanted to play with that border while sticking to journalism. So that’s how I ended up with, okay, let’s do this art project.”

Most of what’s heard in the United States about Syrians, one of the world’s largest refugee populations at 3 million and counting, arrives by low hum of despair. There are U.N. announcements, the occasional feature, and dire newspaper headlines. There are even fewer snippets of news from conflict zones where Western reporters are (rightly) afraid to go. But the Inside-Outside Project reaches for something rare in any kind of news coverage. It grasps at images of war and hopes for the future inside children’s brains.


For Gross, the project was as much about exploring the psychology of trauma in developing minds as it was about finding something iPad users would actually want to see. While some of the images are disturbing, many also show normal kid stuff–like families holding hands and fantasies about the days ahead.

“There’s something about having a problem in isolation that’s psychologically really hard,” Gross says. “[Refugee kids’ art] lets people know that they exist and that they matter enough for others to pay attention to, whatever they’re going through matters. It doesn’t feel like giving food or inoculations, but it turns out it’s really important.”

Gross and Strand are going to keep adding to the Inside-Outside platform, hopefully with other projects, too. Their biggest challenge will be whether iPad users go for it.

To download the app or check out more of their work, click here.


About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.