Refugees Tell Their Stories Through Art

Dec 5, 2016

A top priority for many refugees coming to America is to learn English. But the ability to convey their own stories takes more time. WMRA's Miranda Bennett went to an exhibit of their art to see how some refugees in Charlottesville are communicating through drawing.

At first glance it looks like a pretty simple drawing of a house set in idyllic rolling countryside that a child might draw. 

SUSAN PATRICK: And the wife drew a picture of their house in Aleppo. She titled it "My House Before the Bomb."  It has curtains. It has a garden. It's a very pretty picture.

But as Susan Patrick points out, this picture is just one in a pair of drawings by a wife and husband: Amina and Saadeddin who are refugees from Syria.

PATRICK: And her husband drew “My House After the Bomb.”  And in the middle of the drawing is a very realistic drawing of a hand grenade.  And below it is an image of his house exploding with red, pink lines flying from the house and the windows.  And there are two bodies on the bottom of the picture in pieces. He told me those were his parents. They died in his house.

Patrick organized an exhibit of these drawings and drawings by refugees from seven other countries who now live in Charlottesville. She's a retired art teacher who wasn't quite ready to quit teaching. So a few years ago she began tutoring a refugee from Bhutan and eventually she was volunteering in his English class.

PATRICK: I thought that the people in the English classes, the refugees had a very rich background, rich experiences but a very limited way to tell anyone in English about these experiences so the plan was for them to draw memories from their home country. I think they are showing us things in these pictures that we couldn't know any other way.

Those things include complex emotions about home—something most people have trouble articulating.  But there's particular ambivalence among refugees, who left their homes under difficult circumstances. Ola Mansour, her husband Ahmad Al-Bunni, and their three children arrived in Charlottesville in June from Syria.

OLA MANSOUR: In my country it was very good and very life easy. Everything was good. I like everything in my country.  [laughs]

In their drawings you get a sense of life in Syria before the war began in 2011. From her husband's drawings of the beautiful streets in Old Damascus to the apple trees and duck ponds that dot the Syrian countryside in her drawing. But Ola acknowledges that the drawings represent an idealized nostalgia for a beloved homeland that's unraveling after five years of fighting.

MANSOUR: Everything in Syria is beautiful but the war is kill everything.

So they applied to the United Nations for asylum and they were among the 10,000 Syrian refugees accepted by the United States this fiscal year. With no family in the United States, the Bunnis were placed in Charlottesville because of the city's high employment rate and the low cost of housing. And Ola and her family are taking full advantage of the opportunities this city offers.

MANSOUR: That is my dream. I complete my education in university. I study engineer in my country. I will study more English and learn more English because I want to complete my education.

The drawings by Ola, Ahmed and the other refugees are simple because they aren't trained artists. But that rawness makes it easier for viewers to understand their meaning, like the drawings by Amina and Saadeddin of their house before and after the bomb… 

PATRICK: When someone sits down to draw especially something from a personal experience, he's making a direct connection to the viewer. Whereas a photographer is more removed from the thing he’s photographing. But the person who draws or paints the image is actually expressing something about it. And he was expressing the horror of losing his house and his parents at the same time.  

And Saadeddin's new country has just elected a president who ran on a promise both to suspend immigration from Syria and implement a registry for Muslims entering the United States. But Ola still believes that this is a country of fair laws and Donald Trump's election hasn't changed her feelings about America.

MANSOUR: We think maybe he don't do anything because the people of America all lovely. I think that. I don't know.

The World Art Exhibit, organized by the International Rescue Committee in Charlottesville, will be on display at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library downtown through December 31st.