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Observations on a year

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Last June, I interviewed a young artist about his involvement in the Vancouver Biennale in Squamish — I didn't realize until afterwards he had created a piece I'd been admiring for a while.

Tammam Azzam makes art about his Syrian homeland. An established painter at the start of the war in 2011, he left Damascus for Dubai and, short of supplies, used digital art to express his frustration, anger, fear and hope.

The piece that caught my imagination is called Freedom Graffiti; Azzam Photoshopped Gustav Klimt's The Kiss over the image of a bombed-out building, wrapping the blast marks and bullet holes in lovers' passion. This fall, Banksy included the artwork in his U.K. show "Dismaland."

With the attention Freedom Graffiti got, Azzam put the suffering and losses of his people into greater focus.

Another story in Pique also brought the faraway war home for me. A Whistler songwriter wrote a piece of music dedicated to the White Helmets of Syria, the civil defense group that has rescued tens of thousands who have been bombed by either ISIS, the Assad government/Russia, or the West.

If I hadn't written the story, I'd have known nothing about them.

In 2015, we watched hundreds of thousands of Syrians walk north towards Europe to escape the war and the refugee camps, after living in them for years and not being allowed to work or move beyond what must be an intolerable quagmire.

Many kindnesses were shown them, along with an ugly mentality that greeted people as though they were some kind of migration plague, deserving barbed wire and coastguards pushing their boats back out to sea.

Then Canada's federal election was taken over for a time by the niqab, namely whether wearing the face cover while swearing in at citizenship ceremonies was important (this was an issue that involved three women in a period of several years).

Ugly views about "old-stock Canadians," immigrants and refugees in general were unleashed with Conservative Party support. I'm a critic of their policies and the other parties, but I hadn't expected such a low, desperate attack. Comment spaces after stories on the issue were horrible, ignorant places. Bigots suddenly had permission to spew and — boy, oh boy — they were taking advantage of it.

No Canadian province was immune from this. I fearfully wondered, given the ugliness that had been raised, how the Canadian federal election would have gone had the attacks on Paris taken place in early October.

So by Boxing Day I was done, done, done with bigots, war, hatred and 2015. After turkey, we put on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and I was reminded that J.K. Rowling wanted her seven-novel saga to be a "plea for tolerance."

Towards the end of the first half of the Deathly Hallows, "pureblood" Bellatrix Lestrange tortures Hermione Granger — who was born to non-magical parents. Seeing the word "mudblood" carved into Hermione's arm with a knife, I pictured the men harassing women wearing hijabs in a subway car in Toronto, the thugs who set a mosque on fire in Peterborough, the constant intolerable insolences and degradations First Nations people are subject to, and, reaching back, the desecration of Jewish graves in Montreal.

It was all about connection, or lack of it.

Back to the Syrian artist, Azzam.

I asked him what he'd gotten out of coming to the region for his residency, he gestured to our green mountains and said: "(It) is like a new colour for me. I came from grey, black and the yellow in Dubai. This is totally different and I can use this in my artwork as a connection to this place."

The piece he built while here is called Crossing Borders Maa'Bar. It is a column or tower of 60 old suitcases, with clothing, flowers and herbs sticking out of the openings of each. He said the suitcases were acquired through "the kindness of others" and the aim was create a dialogue about memory, displacement and travel.

After the attacks on Paris and Beirut in mid-November, somebody posted a comment by the late, great children's entertainer Fred Rogers. It wasn't the first time I'd seen it.

He said: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'"

Learning that phrase about a year ago has been one of the things that has helped me through 2015.

This week, most of the refugee family of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi arrived in Vancouver to start a new life. Many helpers had a hand in this; it was an uplifting moment.

Mr. Rogers could have added to the above that we can go to the helpers and become helpers ourselves. Or we can be artists, who are also helpers.

Happy New Year, everyone.

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