A Calgary illustrator who crafted portraits of the horrors of refugee camps, often from memory, is still haunted by what she saw.

"I actually sketched his portrait after he passed away," Nicole Wolf told The Homestretch on Wednesday.

"I got the news as I got on an airplane."

Wolf is describing a young refugee child, Barez, who she met in a refugee camp in Greece.


'There was an explosion and he passed away,' illustrator Nicole Wolf said of a young refugee, Barez, she met in a camp in Greece. (Nicole Wolf)

After graduating from Alberta College of Art and Design, she decided to travel to Asia and Europe to work with non-profits but quickly determined that telling the stories of refugees through portraits — many of them Syrian — was her mission.

"He was a little jokester," she said, describing young Barez.

"He'd act out his stories. He father was a rebel fighting against ISIS, so that's why his family had to run. He'd act out the war scenes he'd seen. He always had a sense of humour, he would sometimes hide things. He passed away in a riot when someone, I think accidentally, threw a fireball or something on his tent. There was an explosion and he passed away."

'I am going to say something'

Wolf felt his story needed to be told.

"I decided to draw his portrait as a way to say, even if the whole world doesn't know about this, I am going to say something about this," she explained.

"Maybe we could have prevented this if we could have got his family out of that camp sooner."

She's now published a collection of her portraits, along with photos and stories in a new book, Drawn Abroad: A Travel Sketchbook.

"Refugees don't get to tell their own stories a whole lot," Wolf said.

"If I can go there and I can draw them and I can hear their stories and they can share their own stories with people, I think we would have a different perspective on this issue."

Wolf met a couple in the same camp that had fled Nigeria over religious persecution. She says a third of the camp had been burned following a riot.

Nigerian couple

If you look closely, you can see machete marks on the woman's face. The couple fled Nigeria because of religion persecution. Nicole Wolf met them in a refugee camp in Greece and drew them. (Nicole Wolf)

"We were putting in 16-hour shifts to try and get everybody inside tents before nightfall. I was tasked to help this lady and her husband get inside a tent," she recalled.

"She was showing me her machete marks."

Wolf says the woman asked her to pray for the couple's safety that night.

"We prayed together. That was pretty much all I could do for her at that point but I made a friend that day."

The sketches were generally done after the fact.

"Most of it was drawn afterward, from memory and then shown to them afterward, and of course I asked their permission to share their stories," she said.

'Aware of my power as an artist'

The four-month experience changed how Wolf saw the bigger picture of suffering.

"I am more aware of the world at large and aware of my power as an artist," she said.

And she hopes to use that power, and the power of collaboration, in her next project.

"I am working with a bunch of local illustrators to create a colouring/activity book for kids, because refugee children often spend four years or more on the road without education. The idea was, if we can send them some things to work on, like small puzzles, English word-learning, skills for life, we can hopefully make that entry point easier," Wolf explained.

"That's what I am doing this Christmas."

With files from The Homestretch