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Art, war and an unexpected friendship stretching between Gaza and Ireland

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This next story is about art, war, and an unexpected friendship - a friendship between women on opposite sides of an Instagram feed. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Dublin, Ireland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPRAYPAINT CAN BEING SHAKEN)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Emmalene Blake is a teacher, activist and artist in Dublin. She paints street murals.

EMMALENE BLAKE: Yeah, usually I paint, like, human rights issues and equality issues.

FRAYER: Her work includes 50-foot portraits of George Floyd, the singer Lizzo and art in support of same-sex marriage, COVID-19 masks and World Down Syndrome Day. Since October 7, though, Emma has focused on the Gaza war.

BLAKE: I painted this.

FRAYER: It looks like a child with a yarmulke on.

BLAKE: Yeah, all any child wants is safety, to be loved...

FRAYER: She shows me a mural she painted along a busy Dublin street of Israeli and Palestinian children stacking alphabet blocks that spell out peace, please, and another - probably her most famous mural - of a woman cradling the body of a child wrapped in a Palestinian flag.

BLAKE: A lot of people think that it's a mother holding her child.

FRAYER: Emma painted it in early November, inspired by a photo she saw in the news. It's a photo you might recognize - a woman bent over a child's body. It's become an iconic image of Gaza's grief, and Emma's mural has become a tourist attraction in Dublin. A few days after painting it, Emma opened Instagram and saw a direct message.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAMIA AL-ATRASH: This is my photo, and you painted my sweet niece, Masa.

FRAYER: That's Samia Al-Atrash, the woman in the news photo that Emma painted. She's still alive, still in Gaza, and says it was the body of her niece that she was holding in that photo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL-ATRASH: My niece, Masa, she's 2 years. And Masa - she's my heart. She's a sweet baby.

FRAYER: Masa was killed in an Israeli airstrike on her home in Rafah, Gaza, on October 21, along with her sister, her father and her mother, who was Samia's sister.

BLAKE: They were Samia's world. They were everything that Samia has. She's not...

FRAYER: Emma recalls how Samia reached out to her that day, wanting to tell her about Masa, the child she was holding in that photo. And she wanted to tell her that Masa had a 4-year-old sister named Lina who was killed alongside her.

AL-ATRASH: (Speaking Arabic).

FRAYER: "They're not numbers. They're real people who had beautiful dreams and a beautiful home," Samia told us in a phone interview from Rafah, where she's taken refuge with her brother and grandmother - her only relatives who are still alive.

After that initial message, Emma bought Samia credit for her cellphone so they could stay in touch, and they exchange messages daily now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL-ATRASH: She's a beautiful person. She's helped me.

BLAKE: Yeah, I mean, like, she sends me messages all the time saying thanks, but, like, I don't need a thanks. Like, I can't even begin to comprehend what she's going through.

FRAYER: And the two women have started fundraising for Gaza together. They're selling prints of Emma's mural and donating the proceeds to UNRWA, the U.N.'s Palestinian relief agency. And Emma has painted a new mural now.

BLAKE: I told Samia that I wanted to paint Masa as she should be remembered and not as the image that the whole world has seen of her.

FRAYER: It's a two-story painting of a giggling toddler on a wall of pink, Masa's favorite color.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL-ATRASH: And she's clever - so, so clever - sweet baby and so clever.

FRAYER: Emma has also written a poem to go with this new mural.

BLAKE: It's called "Second Time Painting You," and it's just about all of the things that I didn't know the first time I painted Masa.

FRAYER: And so in Dublin rush hour, as cars whiz past this mural, Emma reads aloud her poem about Masa.

BLAKE: (Reading) Second time painting you - that cheeky smile. I sketch it now, one finger to your lips. You look off to the side, smiling at someone - something that makes you feel happy, makes you feel safe. 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...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL-ATRASH: I will never forget my niece.

FRAYER: Masa lives on in her Aunt Samia's memory - and on a two-story cinderblock wall on the side of a tattoo parlor in Dublin. She looks like any other laughing little girl. And only if passersby scan a QR code that Emma has painted in the corner will they learn about a little girl in Gaza named Masa.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Dublin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.