Date published: 03/20/2009
Publication: Albany Times Union
By Danielle Furfaro
The three Iraqi teenage girls show up at the library wearing red and black. The red, they explain, symbolizes the blood of dead Iraqis. The black represents the tears and sadness of their country.
Shahad Jassim, 18, Wead Jassim, 16, and Tethkar Ahmad, 15, are refugees.
They fled their war-torn country with their families within the past two years. They fled the scourge of dead bodies in the streets and bombed-out buildings. They fled what they felt would be their own certain deaths.
Now living in Albany, they aim to use art to educate the world about atrocities happening in Iraq and to express their hopes for peace. When they speak about their homeland, they can’t help but cry. Their art gives them a voice, and it seems to help. At least a little.
The girls are participating in the Iraqi Children’s Art Exchange, an international program based in Northampton, Mass. A collection of murals, created one day last fall by refugee children ranging from preschoolers to teens, will be on exhibit at the Albany Public Library through March 27. A reception for the young artists will be 5 p.m. Monday.
The 14 Iraqi children who now live in the Capital Region completed four painted canvas murals in one day. There is a painting of a peaceful house before the war, a painting of a mosque, one of an Iraqi flag and a mural featuring the Statue of Liberty.
The Iraqi artists are big on symbolism. The black tears in one mural represent sadness, roses represent the souls of martyrs. A bird represents freedom and peace in one mural, and the complaints of the Iraqi people heading back to be heard by God in another.
In October, artist and teacher Claudia Lefko, a preschool teacher and the creator of the Iraqi Children’s Art Exchange, visited the Sanctuary for Independent Media to lead the one-day workshop. On that day, she coaxed the murals out of the children by discussing their stories of life in wartime, leaving their home country and resettling in foreign lands.
Now comes step two of the program. Next week, the Sanctuary will host a workshop where Lefko will guide 16 refugees and 16 American-born children to create murals that explain their different experiences and how they can work toward greater understanding and appreciation of each other.
Lefko often travels to the Middle East and throughout the United States to work with youth who have been displaced because of the Iraqi conflict. She takes the artwork from country to country to inspire the children and to let them know they aren’t alone.
“The goal is to use creativity and art to help make a better world,” said Branda Miller, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor and co-director of the Sanctuary for Independent Media. Miller helped arrange the art exchange. “Then these murals will go on tour, and other kids will see them and make murals there. It creates a dialogue.”
At the library earlier this week, the teenagers smile dutifully for a photographer, but start sobbing as soon as they sit down to talk with a reporter. For an hour, they recount the horrors that came with the U.S. invasion of their homeland.
Unlike some of the younger refugee artists, Shahad, Wead and Tethkar are old enough to remember the days before the bombs and the killing started, when they played in the streets and went to school without fear. They remember when the death began and suddenly found old friends becoming enemies as the country sank into violence and fear. They have had uncles, aunts, brothers and cousins who were killed, kidnapped or raped.
“People didn’t have to die,” said Tethkar, a ninth-grader who cries while she interprets for her friends. “We just want to live like we did before. We didn’t want to come here.”
This is what happens every time they talk about their experiences in Iraq, Miller said.
“These children don’t have a voice,” said Miller. “So anytime someone is willing to listen to them, all of this comes out.”
At the moment, making this art has been one of the only outlets these children have to take them out of their sadness and misery. Even their American-born schoolmates at Albany High School have been cruel to them, they said, treating them like the enemy or telling them to go back to Iraq.
Lefko will take all of the works to Egypt in September 2010, where there will be a gala celebration of the completion of UNESCO’s Decade of Peace and Non-Violence Among Children.
“It’s important for people in general and especially young people who have experienced a lot of trauma to express how they feel and be seen and heard and acknowledged,” said Susan Davies of the local Iraqi Refugee Project, which helped set up the workshop. “They need that outlet.”
For Shahad, Wead and Tethkar, the murals exemplify the kind of work they have to do to find some kind of inner peace. If it leads to more people seeing the horrors in Iraq as events that happen to actual people, rather than abstractions or just images in the news, it is worth it to them.
“We want to tell everyone what is happening in Iraq,” said Shahad. “Maybe they can help us.”
Danielle Furfaro can be reached at 454-5097 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The work of young Iraqi refugees who have participated in the Iraqi Children’s Art Exchange is hanging upstairs at the Albany Public Library main branch through March 27.
When: The library is open 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday; 1-5 p.m. Sunday
Where: Albany Public Library main branch, 161 Washington Ave., Albany
Reception: 5 p.m. Monday at the library
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