Refugee artists from Syria respond to the refugee crisis

Refugee artists from Syria respond to the refugee crisis
Culture: Living in exile across Europe and the world, creative Syrians are expressing the refugee experience through art.
6 min read
23 October, 2015
Al-Araby spoke to five artists from Syria whose work focuses on the "refugee crisis" [AAAJ]
A record 200,000 people fleeing Syria have made it across the borders of Europe so far this year - a small number compared with the millions of Syrian refugees eking out a survival in neighbouring countries, but one that has attracted significant media and political attention nonetheless.

Some of those crossing land and sea in search of safety are artists, who are using the power of the image - demonstrated so profoundly by the transformative photo of drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi - to share sharp observations about their experiences of conflict and exile.

Social media provides a ready platform for these images, with Facebook pages such as that of the Syrian civil society organisation Dawlaty earning hundreds of followers, and the internet making them just as accessible to international audiences as they are - electricity cuts allowing - to Syrian compatriots back home.

Al-Araby spoke to five artists from Syria whose work is showing the world what the "refugee crisis" looks like from the inside.

Mahmoud Salameh, Australia

Mahmoud Salameh, 44, began drawing as a young child and grew up to become a cartoonist for newspapers and magazines in Lebanon. He managed to keep his career going there for three years - despite the fact that, as a Palestinian refugee from Yarmouk camp in Syria's Damascus, he didn’t have the papers to live legally in Lebanon.

"It was hard," he recalls.

"If I wanted to go to the magazine or newspaper… I had to go in secret. I couldn't take a taxi like everyone else. I had to move around like a rat."

In 2010, in search of greater artistic freedom - he had been questioned following an exhibition in Syria in 2003 - Salameh embarked on an epic journey to Australia, arriving on Christmas Island by boat.

Salameh was detained for a year and five months before eventually being allowed onto the Australian mainland, a right of passage that is mandatory for all who arrive on Australia's shores without a valid visa.

The artist and animator has since captured this experience in a cartoon in which a boat of tired travellers celebrate their arrival on an idyllic island, not realising a detention centre lurks behind the greenery.

"When I went to Christmas Island, [I thought] the island is amazing - five star! The nature is amazing, really beautiful," says Salameh of the piece.

"The first thing you say when you arrive is 'Wow, how beautiful is this island!' But you don't know that you're going to go to detention.

"So this is the idea, when you first see the island, you say 'what a wonderful world'. But the fence and the detention centre is right behind the trees."

Moustafa Jacoub, USA

Previously a communications engineer and amateur artist, Moustafa Jacoub, 34, was inspired to return to the easel when the Syrian uprising began in spring 2011.

"We needed art in those early days," he recalls.

"We needed it to explain ourselves to the world in a language that would speak to their hearts and feelings."

Encouraged by the positive reaction he received on social media, Jacoub, from Deir al-Zour, went on to create several political works of graphic art, eventually earning him the attention of the Syrian security forces.

Faced with what he saw as a choice between abandoning his passion, dying under torture or leaving Syria, he chose the latter, managing to get a student visa to Germany for a masters degree in Communications Engineering, before travelling to the US to pursue his true dream of studying art.

Jacoub is acutely aware that such routes to safe travel are closed to most of his fellow citizens, a fact he highlights in a graphic design - in which visa refusal stamps take the form of a boat in the pages of a Syrian passport.

"This work explains the reasons Syrians travel illegally, as they despair of applying for a visa and being refused again, to the point where there is no way forward for them but getting on the death boats," he says of the piece.

Anas Salameh, Norway

Anas Salameh, 36, is a Palestinian fine artist from Yarmouk camp in Damascus, who worked as an animator for Syrian children's channel Spacetoon before escaping across the Mediterranean in 2013 - an experience he describes as like "travelling across the sea in a coffin".

The artist now lives in Norway, and attracted attention on the streets of the capital Oslo in 2014 when he created a twelve metre by eight metre mural in front of St James' Church of Culture, dedicated to the suffering of children in Syria, Gaza, Iraq and all other wars.

"It had a big impact, this wall," says Salameh.

"The reaction of people from members of Norwegian society who saw it was very strong. It got to the point where people would stop and cry when they saw it."

One such passer-by, a young woman, was so moved that she went home and returned with armfuls of her childhood toys for him to add to the piece.

"Migration... is a result of war," Salameh continues.

"So the subjects are all linked together."

Khaled Malik, the Gulf

Born in Douma in Eastern Ghouta, Khaled Malik worked as a graphic designer for media companies in Syria before moving to the Gulf in 2001 to escape military service.

Malik, 36, developed as a political artist in 2003, when he took part in artistic campaigns against the occupation of and subsequent spread of terrorism in Iraq.

His current work seeks to give a voice to the suffering of his compatriots both inside and outside Syria, for example by transplanting a tent from a refugee camp onto the middle of a UN assembly meeting, where it is duly ignored.

"I consider the symbolism of the refugee tent here very powerful, because it symbolises the inability of the UN, and in fact more than this, its ignoring of the problem," says Malik of the work.

"What made me make this piece was seeing the people of my country who are vulnerable refugees, who are helpless and calling out to the world for help, but no-one is listening."

Sameer Khalili, Holland

'A large number of corpses of refugees found inside a lorry in Austria'

Palestinian graphic artist Sameer Khalili, 25, left Syria in 2014 to escape military service and an increasingly dangerous situation in Homs refugee camp, where he had lived his whole life.

The journey - crossing secretly into Turkey and then by boat to Greece, before flying to Holland on a fake passport - was not easy, but did not compare to the daily danger he was leaving behind.

"The biggest thing that I remember being afraid of or that might have left a mark on me is going through the regime's checkpoints," he says.

"It was terrifying."

But memories of home and the dangers of fortress Europe make Syria hard to leave behind, a sentiment reflected in Khalili's work. A sea-bound boat carries, instead of people, his street in Homs camp, while the back of the infamous Austrian lorry opens to reveal not dozens of decaying bodies, but a shelled and deserted Syrian street.

"The idea that someone could leave Syria and arrive in Austria and then die in a lorry, after everything that they've witnessed, the level of daily death in Syria... makes you feel that war, the ghost of death, is following us," he says.