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How Irish Artist's Murals Sparked Friendship and Hope for a Journalist in Gaza

This is the story of an unlikely friendship that helped save a Palestinian journalist's life.

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Kneeling down on the ground, Palestinian journalist Samia Alatrash wrapped her arms around the lifeless body of her two-year-old niece Masa. Israel’s bombing of Rafah in southern Gaza had killed Masa, her four-year-old sister Lina, and both their parents — in one day. 21 October 2023.

As images of Samia hugging the tiny shroud were beamed across the world, more than 4,000 kilometers away, in Ireland's capital Dublin, it prompted Irish artist Emmalene Blake to pick up her colours and paint murals of Samia and Masa.

This is the story of an unlikely friendship that helped save a Palestinian journalist's life.

(Left) Samia Alatrash holding the lifeless body of her 2-year-old niece Masa. (Right) Irish artist Emmalene Blake painting a mural in Dublin based on the photograph.

(Left, photograph posted by Mahmoud Bassam. Right, screengrab from video posted by Emmalene Blake)

What followed was the forging of a friendship between two strangers halfway across the world, from Dublin to Gaza. Now, months later, that unlikely connection is what has proved instrumental in helping Samia, 26, finally evacuate Gaza and escape the war that has killed many members of her family.

This is the story of their friendship, from Ireland to Palestine, and how it helped save Samia’s life.

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The Night Samia Prayed Endlessly

Samia remembers the night of 20 October 2023, all too well, and painfully.

It was almost a fortnight into the war, and Israeli forces were bombing Samia’s hometown of Rafah. Samia says she couldn’t get in touch with her sister, Samar, after 11 pm, when the bombing intensified.

“They were bombing everywhere, so no one could get to my sister’s house,” she recalls in an interview over the phone.

Terrified, Samia began to pray. “From 11 pm to 6 am, I was praying to Allah, can this bombing stop?” She couldn’t sleep. All she did was think about her sister Samar and her nieces Masa and Lina. “It was so difficult, it’s not fair. I was waiting for the morning, to go and hug them.” 

But the morning would only confirm Samia’s worst fears. “Around 7 o’clock, I found out that I have lost all of them — my sister, Samar; my beautiful nieces, Masa and Lina; and my sister’s husband, Dr Loay Khader. I felt that I had lost a part of my heart, my soul.”
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Samar had helped raise Samia and their brother, Mohammad, after their mother died when Samia was only six years old. Even months after Samar’s passing, Samia struggles to speak of her sister in the past tense.

“Samar is not only my sister, she is my mother and my friend. With her death, I felt for the first time that I am orphaned. I cannot imagine that I have lost them forever. I want to hug them and go on a picnic with them.”
Samia

As Samia embraced Masa, unwilling to let her go, photographers nearby clicked what has become one of the defining images of the ongoing war. 

When Irish artist Emmalene Blake saw the photograph, it moved her deeply. “I keep crying the last couple of weeks. It’s all I can think about,” she told a friend.

Emmalene, who teaches art, design, and mathematics to early school leavers, was so moved by the image that it made her want to paint Samia and Masa on a wall in Dublin. And so, the 36-year-old artist picked up her spray paints, reimagined the photograph, and recreated it as a mural in the city’s Harold Cross neighbourhood. 

The only change she had made to the photo: The shroud covering Masa was painted as a Palestinian flag.

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News of the mural in Dublin travelled far and wide, and a picture of Emmalene’s artwork reached Samia. In early November, on an Instagram video of Emmalene painting the mural, Samia wrote in memory of her niece, “My heart is broken without you.”
This is the story of an unlikely friendship that helped save a Palestinian journalist's life.

Emmalene Blake, the Irish artist who has painted several murals expressing solidarity with Palestine on the walls of Dublin, wearing a ‘Free Palestine’ T-shirt.

(Photo Courtesy: Meghnad Bose)

Touched by her artwork, Samia also reached out to Emmalene. “You painted me and my sweet niece Masa,” she told her. 

Emmalene recalls, “I told her I’ll sell t-shirts and sweatshirts and try and raise funds for her.”

Samia was beyond grateful. She says Emmalene was the first person to connect with her during the war and offer to help her.

In the face of unspeakable tragedy, Samia had found what felt like a personal solidarity across borders. And so, in those most unfortunate of circumstances, the Palestinian journalist and the Irish artist forged a friendship.

“I talk to her pretty much every day now,” says Emmalene.

Mission Evacuation

Emmalene and Samia would keep in touch regularly, and Samia would update her friend about the situation in Rafah. It was rarely good news, but one day, Emmalene noticed that Samia seemed especially fearful.

“She got in touch with me and said there was a family 10 meters from where she was staying that was bombed and killed. And she was getting really scared,” Emmalene said. 

Upon getting that message from Samia, Emmalene sent over the funds she had raised up to that point by selling copies of her artwork on Palestine. They hoped that the amount would be enough for Samia to evacuate Gaza.

By then, Samia’s other surviving relatives had decided they wanted to escape from Gaza, too. That would need more funds.

Emmalene was ready to double down on her efforts, and she wasn’t alone.

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“I was getting messages from a few different people on Instagram about how they could help Samia. So, we set up a WhatsApp group with everyone who wanted to help with evacuations of Samia and her family,” Emmalene said. 

Soon, there were around 10 people in the group, from Ireland and Palestine, all involved in planning and coordinating the efforts to relocate Samia and her family out of Gaza.

“At the moment, we’re trying to raise funds for her brother and her cousin and her cousin’s family and her uncle to evacuate as well,” Emmalene said. 

“What’s the WhatsApp group called?” I asked Emmalene.

“Evacuations,” she replied.

At the time of writing this, ‘Help The Alatrash Family Evacuate’, the fundraiser organised by Emmalene, has received nearly 400 donations, and raised more than $33,000 for Samia’s family.

This is the story of an unlikely friendship that helped save a Palestinian journalist's life.

The fundraiser for Samia’s family.

(Photo Courtesy: Screengrab/GoFundMe)

Leaving Home Behind

When I met Emmalene in Dublin in mid-March, she had said that Samia was “just waiting now for her name to be called at the border.” 

She was waiting to flee the war. And as she waited, she would often break into tears. “I was crying, crying, crying… all the time.”

After waiting for weeks on end, hoping against hope that her name would be next, Samia’s name was finally called.

On Sunday, 7 April, at around half past seven in the morning, she got on a bus in Rafah and began the journey away from the place she had always called home — Gaza.

Almost 24 hours later, at around 5 am, she reached Nasr City in Egypt.

“I am so confused… I don’t know how I feel,” she said, hours after her arrival in Nasr City.

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“I am feeling sad because I am leaving Rafah, because I am leaving my family, my only brother, my grandmother…I am so, so sad,” Samia said. 

She hopes that her 20-year-old brother Mohammad will also be able to evacuate to Egypt. Emmalene and the others are working on it, but none of them know how long the process could take.

Nasr City is a little over 185 miles away from Rafah. But the distance feels much longer for Samia. She mourns the loss of leaving where she belongs.

“I don’t have a home now because it was destroyed,” Samia said. 

She says she hopes this is her chance for a life “without bombing, without genocide, without killing.” And she looks forward to getting back to working as a freelance journalist.

The Irish Bond With Palestine

In Ireland, Emmalene isn’t an exception when it comes to expressing a strong solidarity with Palestine. The country has had a deep history of support for the Palestinian cause.

Ahead of St Patrick’s Day, at a meeting between then-Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Leo Varadkar and US President Joe Biden, the Irish leader said, “As you know, the Irish people are deeply troubled about the catastrophe that’s unfolding before our eyes in Gaza.” 

“When I travel the world, leaders often ask me why the Irish have such empathy for the Palestinian people. And the answer is simple — we see our history in their eyes. A story of displacement, of dispossession, and national identity questioned and denied, forced immigration, discrimination, and now hunger.”
Leo Varadkar

“We were occupied by Britain for 400 years, so we definitely have a kinship or solidarity with Palestine,” says Emmalene. She compares the Great Famine of the 1840s, when Ireland faced years of hunger during British rule, to the current widespread starvation in Gaza.

Speaking of the Irish famine, she said, “The potato crops failed, but there was plenty of other food. But Britain was shipping all of the meat and all of the other food out of Ireland into Britain. So the famine wasn’t a famine, it was a genocide.” Around a million Irish people are estimated to have died during the famine, and millions more emigrated from the island.

Comparing it to the situation unfolding in Gaza, Emmalene says, “Hunger is being used as a weapon of war at the moment. They’re not letting the aid in. It’s a man-made famine.”

“They can feel my pain,” said Samia. “I have received so many messages from people in Ireland, they send me voice notes in support. That makes me feel stronger. I love them because they are supporting me and the people in Gaza. The people in Ireland are with the people in Gaza, every day, every night.”
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What the Two Friends Hope For

When she reached Nasr, Samia reunited with her cousin Soha, who had managed to evacuate a couple of days earlier. The two of them recorded a video for Emmalene and the others who had helped them flee Gaza. Soha began, “Hi Emma, Ciara and everyone, this is the hotel we are staying in…” Samia looked on and smiled.

This is the story of an unlikely friendship that helped save a Palestinian journalist's life.

In Egypt’s Nasr City, Samia (right) and her cousin Soha recording a video update for Emmalene and the others who have helped them evacuate from Gaza.

(Photo: Screengrab/Instagram)

Emmalene shared the video on Instagram and wrote, “Samia is out! We have them booked into this hotel in Nasr City in Egypt for a few more nights until we can get an apartment sorted where they can wait for the rest of their family.” She added, “We still need to raise more funds to get the others out.”

Now in Nasr, Samia hopes to get back to working as a journalist. And she hopes for an end to the war. “Stop the war. Stop killing. Stop destroying houses and dreams,” she said.

And Emmalene, in addition to selling her artwork to raise funds for Samia’s family, plans to keep painting for Palestine.

“It’s the biggest atrocity over a lifetime. So, I’m going to continue painting for as long as it goes on,” she said. 

The two of them have never met. Samia hopes she can change that someday. “I hope I meet Emma face to face and all the people in Ireland as soon as possible,” she said. 

Her gratitude for Emma, as she calls her, knows no bounds. “Emma is a kind and beautiful woman,” she said. “Emma is now my best friend. Because every day, she calls me and asks about me.”

And like she does every so often, Samia recalls the mural of Masa that Emmalene painted. “She painted my sweet niece, Masa.” She says it gives her strength to think that people in the world remember Masa through that massive mural of Masa on a wall painted pink. 
This is the story of an unlikely friendship that helped save a Palestinian journalist's life.

A photograph of Masa (left) and Emmalene’s mural of her on a wall in Dublin (Photos courtesy Samia Alatrash and Emmalene Blake)

(Photos Courtesy: Samia Alatrash and Emmalene Blake)

Emmalene also wrote a poem for Masa to go along with the mural, titled ‘Second Time Painting You.’ Here’s an excerpt of the poem. 

“Two year olds don’t worry about time.

I didn’t know this about you,

when I painted you before.

Didn’t see it.

Didn’t see your smile.

Didn’t see the feather in your hair.

Didn’t see your flowery runners,

that match your flowery jeans.

Didn’t see the baby hairs

all along your forehead

you had yet to grow out.

See when I painted you before,

You were shrouded in cloth,

Your auntie clutching your lifeless body,

Rocking back and forth,

Whispering words meant only for you.”

For this mural, Emmalene chose to not paint a Palestinian flag or anything on the mural to denote that Masa was a Palestinian. “The reaction I had been getting while painting it was people going like, “Oh my God, such a gorgeous child!” So, I want people to have that reaction and then see the plaque with information about the mural — for them to read the poem and then for it to hit them.”
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Emmalene adds, “I think there’s a creche down the road from where I painted it. And once it was nearly finished, a good few mothers who had kids around the same age would go by and would tell their kids, “Oh look at that lovely little girl, isn’t she just like you!””

“That’s the reaction I wanted,” says Emmalene. “It’s just a child, it could be any child.”

This is the story of an unlikely friendship that helped save a Palestinian journalist's life.

Another mural by Emmalene in Dublin, this time a painting of 2-year-old Masa (right) along with her 4-year-old sister Lina.

(Photo Courtesy: Emmalene Blake)

Next to her first mural of Samia and Masa, too, Emmalene had painted three children, one of whom was wearing a Jewish kippah and another a keffiyeh. “What I was thinking was — kids are kids. It doesn’t matter where they’re from, what religion they are. All any kid really wants is to be safe and be happy. So, whether it’s Palestinian kids, whether it’s Israeli kids or Jewish kids, whether it’s any other kids in the world, that’s all they want.”

The mural of the three children showed them playing with letter blocks. The children had built two towers with the blocks. They read, “Peace please.”

This is the story of an unlikely friendship that helped save a Palestinian journalist's life.

(Meghnad Bose is a student journalist at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Columbia News Service publishes the work of enrolled students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. For more stories, please visit www.columbianewsservice.com.)

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Topics:  Gaza   Ireland   Israel Palestine 

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