Iraqi artist departs for new life in the United States

After fleeing to Syria from their native Iraq three years ago, artist Amer Ibrahim* and his family are starting a new life in the United States.

A detail from one of Amer's works of art.  © UNHCR/B.Diab

DAMASCUS, Syria, September 2 (UNHCR) - Amer Ibrahim* always planned to become an artist when he enrolled at Baghdad University's Fine Arts Faculty in the mid-1990s, but he never expected to practise his craft as a refugee.

With the outbreak of sectarian violence in Iraq in 2006, their mixed Sunni-Shia Muslim marriage made Amer and his wife the victims of harassment by local gangs. After months of internal displacement, they decided to leave their homeland and seek shelter in Damascus.

Recently, the family were on the move again after being offered resettlement and the hope of a peaceful new life in the United States.

After arriving in Damascus, the Ibrahims moved into a run-down studio apartment located in a slum on the outskirts of the Syrian capital. Amer recalls how the family of four would huddle up in the tiny room during the winter to sleep amid the stench of wet paint and turpentine.

"We used to sleep here, and I used to paint here. They [the family] were annoyed by the smell, but what could I do? I had to work," he told a UNHCR visitor to the apartment shortly before leaving for the US in late August.

Selling his paintings through the UN refugee agency and a handful of exhibitions has been his only source of income for the past three years. Iraqis are barred from legal employment in Syria, and those who work on the black market are often exploited.

"There was no other way we could have survived," Amer stressed. "UNHCR provided us with food, school supplies, health care, and even an outlet for my work, but we were still struggling. When I was told we had been accepted for resettlement, I couldn't believe it."

Amer is part of a collective of Iraqi refugee artists supported by UNHCR in Syria since 2007, when a first exhibition was organized at Al-Ruaa Art Gallery in the Jaramana neighbourhood of Damascus.

Since then, a website has been launched (www.iraqiartinexile.com) and numerous exhibitions have been held. The artists regularly showcase their work at the UNHCR office in Damascus.

On August 25, the Ibrahims flew out of Damascus en route for Richmond, Virginia after being selected for resettlement in the United States. They say they have one acquaintance, the brother of a friend, in the historic city two hours south of Washington DC.

They are among almost 9,400 vulnerable Iraqi refugees who have been offered a new start across the Atlantic since February 2007 - less than 1 percent of the overall Iraqi refugee population registered with UNHCR in Syria.

The Ibrahims speak little English and have never been outside the Middle East, but they are hopeful this will be the start of a new life, an end to three years of living in fear and squalor in a Damascus ghetto.

Before Iraq was torn by violence they led a middle class life in a 350-square-metre duplex apartment in Baghdad, but they are not bitter. "We had some good times. In spite of all the difficulties we went through, we were happy in Syria. Thank God we survived this entire ordeal without losing a family member," said Amer.

"Stability, he replied, when asked what he expected of the United States - and a chance to resume his beloved art in a new environment. "I hope I'll be able to earn a living from my work, but if not, I'll do something else. It doesn't matter, as long as we have a future to look forward to."

* Names have been changed for protection reasons

By Farah Dakhlallah in Damascus, Syria