The Story of Zahra

by Sandra Bruce

The inspiration for subjects of my Matrix quilts come from many sources. I always have my eye open for possibilities everywhere. I read online daily, and ran across a photo essay by a photographer, Muhammed Muheisen, of Syrian refugee children. below is a link to it:

I was captivated by these little faces. How much beyond their years they all look. As a mother they are difficult to look at. I knew right away that I wanted to do the face of Zahra Mahmoud, a 5-year-old refugee from Deir El-Zour, Syria. Her eyes! I knew they would be very challenging to do. Here is the original photo:

My first task was to get permission to use the photo, and it took a bit of detective work. I went to Facebook first, as I had seen that Muheisen had a page there. I located his page and wrote him a message asking for permission to use his photo. His reply was that he worked freelance for Associated Press, who owned the photo. After several phone calls and emails, I finally got the right department at AP and received permission, which came with a fee of course, to use the photo to make one quilt (not to be sold) and also use on my social media. Once I got the contract and paid the fee I got busy working. Here is the crop I decided on.

My deadline of May 1st came about coincidentally with finding Zahra. I planned to enter her into a competition assembled by Susan Brubaker Knapp, Jane Dunnewald, Judy Coates Perez, and several other quilt artists of The Artist’s Circle, called “Threads of Resistance”. Here is their site:

With only 2 months to complete a 34″ by 58″ quilt I knew it would be close, but I finished it in a record 5 weeks. Here are some progress shots. The first 1/3rd went easily and quickly. I fudged the background color as I knew the color in the photo would be tough to match and there was no time to go look for it or even to dye my own.

I certainly have a lot of fabric that looks like this!

With the eyes being the critical part, I did cheat a bit and went down the side of the quilt for a while. (I usually work consistently left to right, top to bottom).

I knew there was the Sonoma Quilt show coming up, and I was fortunate to be the Featured Quilter there. I planned to work on Zahra while there, no time to lose! I also knew that I should get the eyes done first, as I needed every bit of concentration I could muster to do them. No distractions, no music, no radio, total quiet.  I got busy and got them done. So, the really amazing things about her eyes: when I first got the high res photo from AP and I enlarged it on my computer to get a closer look at them, I could see the reflection of Muhammed taking the photo, of people in the background, of the blue sky, sand……it gave me goosebumps. I had to simplify those things but still give the impression of what was there. Lots of piecing, despite simplifying!

Here’s the back of one of her eyes.

The Sonoma Show was great! I had a wonderful time, and people were very interested in what I was doing. I accomplished 2 blocks during the weekend. Here is the set up.

I also taught my Matrix class to a great bunch of ladies, including Arlette, who flew up from Houston to take it, and 2 ladies who were back for a second class to make a different sample piece. By the way, I am returning to Sonoma the weekend of June 9-11 to teach Material Matrix again, and my quilt Color Dance as well. For info call Broadway Quilts at 707-938-7312.

Back to Zahra….once I was back home the rest of her went pretty fast as I was in high gear.

Almost done!

Top done. Onto the long-arm. I think I used every shade of pink thread I had.

The finished quilt. The title: “Zahra, Age 5, Syrian Refugee”. She is done, and entered into the competition. I have also entered it into the Pine Tree Quilt show coming up on May. I am happy with the outcome, and at the same time, sad for all the children like Zahra, who have had to endure what no child should have to. In my quilt my love goes out to her.





39 thoughts on “The Story of Zahra

  1. Genius Sandra, pure genius! I love every one of our portrait quilts, but this one touches the heart. Seeing the photographer’s reflection in her eyes—how amazing is that? A fabulous post! (Christine here)

  2. This whole account as well as the finished quilt made me cry. It is so beautiful and such a tribute to Zahra and all the other children who, as you say, have suffered what no child should suffer.

  3. Fabulous once again. And thank you for highlighting the tragedies going on in our world. I love that you have her initial z in her eye.

  4. Oh how I really enjoyed your story. I am in awe of your talent. I can see why you selected this beautiful photos. The eyes are outstanding. The quilting is amazing, Sandra. You have to know, I’m a big fan of yours. No doubt in my mind that your work will be validated in those quilt shows.

  5. Your story and this exquisitely executed quilt are both so moving. This is the first I’ve seen of your work. I would love to take a class with you! Thank you for bringing truth and compassion to our quilted arts.

    • Bluebird, interesting comparison, and thank you. If you look at the others Muheisen has taken you will see why I had such a difficult time picking one. I kind of wanted a girl wearing the hijab, but when I saw Zahra it was a done deal. I think the reason she isn’t wearing one is because she is so young.

  6. Wow, Sandra. Spectacular and inspiring! Somehow, the innocent, open face of this little girl looking out at us and beyond into the future conveys a sense of hope. Thank you for sharing the story behind the image and the painstaking artistry to create this piece. It’s a blue-ribbon quilt. Congratulations!

  7. Falling in love with the beautiful quilt was easy. Reading the story, made her that much more beautiful. I have to say, I didn’t realize the matrix is actually pieced together; I assumed it was fusible applique style. Blown away!

    • Hi, MUffa, I know how old this is, I apologize! I am a bit of a tech-dummy I confess. Anyway, if you look on my website under “teaching” there is a list of places where I’m teaching. I’ll be teaching Matrix at Zephyr next year too. Stay tuned! Again my apologies 🙂

  8. Genuine question and I mean no offence. Did you get permission from the child or her guardian? I struggle very much with us using their images for the sake of our own art. What are the legal requirements in using a child’s
    image, especially such a vulnerable one?

  9. Interested Party, as mentioned in my post, the photo was taken by Mohammed Muheisen, and belongs to Associated Press, whom I paid for the right to use the photo to make my quilt. The photo was part of a photo essay in the NYT, where I first saw the photo. After many visits, Muheisen is friends with Zahra and her family, and sees them them whenever he is in her part of the world, in Jordan. He asked me for a high res photo of my quilt so that he could show it to her.
    So, to answer your question, no, I did not get permission directly from Zahra, or her parents, which would have been practically impossible. But in making this quilt, which has been seen by thousands of people, I feel that I did as much as I could possibly do to bring attention to Zahra and her plight.

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