Belfast's art community embraces exiled Syrian painter

A Kurdish refugee from northeast Syria, Mousa has been painting his journey of exile. In Northern Ireland, he has finally found a haven for his family, his art is blossoming, and he's trying to repay the community that has taken him in

Syrian refugee, Marwan Mousa sits in his living room surrounded by his paintings in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
© UNHCR/Béla Szandelszky

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - Marwan Mousa, a Kurdish refugee, sits amidst a raft of canvases – ranging from sombre to colorful, small to large – scattered throughout the living room of his new home in Belfast, a lifetime away from northeastern Syria, which he fled several years ago.

“I named this one the ‘Boat of Death,’” he said picking up a murky grey and red acrylic painting. “This boat has taken the lives of so many Syrians and it was lost at sea, just like Syria.”

A Kurdish refugee from North East Syria, Mousa, 52, has been painting his voyage to safety. Resettled to Belfast, Northern Ireland, in August 2016, Mousa has found a haven for his family and his art.

Mousa was not a painter before fleeing Syria, he owned a cellphone repair shop. His art was born in exile, an expression of his pain in Iraq, the first stage of his journey to stability.

“This boat has taken the lives of so many Syrians and it was lost at sea, just like Syria.”

“It all started with some charcoal and paper in Iraq,” he told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency during an interview at his home on the outskirts of the city. “I couldn’t express myself speaking, so this was my way of letting things out.”

Mousa fled the bloodshed in Syria in 2013 and then found refuge with his wife and their four children in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he spent two years in a refugee camp. “This tent represents the hardship of exile in refugee camps, especially in the winter, when the conditions are really bad,” he said, pointing to a black and white drawing he sketched at the time.

His 10 year-old son, Mohammed, was suffering from Thalassemia, a chronic blood disease that requires ongoing and costly medical care. Mousa was unable to access treatment for his son in Iraq. The family was resettled to the UK from Iraq in 2016, a journey that proved life-saving for Mohammed.

Kurdish refugee from northeast Syria, Marwan Mousa has been painting his journey in the safety of Belfast, Northern Ireland (Credit: Dalal Mawad and Bela Szandelszky)

Mousa and his family are among the approximately 10,000 Syrians to come to the UK by early 2018 through the Vulnerable Persons’ Resettlement Scheme, the UK’s main refugee resettlement programme. From late 2015 to late 2017, 632 Syrian refugees arrived in Northern Ireland under the scheme.

Once in Northern Ireland, Mousa’s painting grew richer and more intense. His son was being treated and the local government offered the family housing and other support to help integrate in their new home. Mousa’s paintings became more joyful, but his work was still unknown to the rest of the world.

A local branch of children's charity Barnardos, who were supporting the family, discovered Mousa’s artwork, and introduced him to Deirdre Mackel, the arts programme manager at the Upper Spring Field Development Trust, a Belfast group supporting marginalised communities.

“The paintings were very emotive,” Mackel said, “there is a lot of sadness in there, there is a lot of tragedy, but they are also very symbolic.”

Mackel believed in the value of Mousa’s work and decided to help him. “People needed to see these, see the plight of what people actually went through in Syria to come here.She introduced him to art galleries around the city and helped him organise his first exhibition a year ago.

“His work is so powerful, a lot of his work is a self-portrait of his journey and story.”

“There were 100 people at the opening that night,” Mackel said, “people who might have never attended an art gallery before.” Mousa held one more exhibition in August 2017 and has now been invited to participate in another art show in Belfast next month

Mackel also introduced Mousa to local artists who helped him develop his technique. “There was a language barrier but we transcended that with art,” said Charlotte Bosanquet, a painter based in Belfast. “His work is so powerful, a lot of his work is a self-portrait of his journey and story.”

Art has helped Mousa and his family to settle into their new life in Belfast.  Now, he also uses art to help others.  Every week he volunteers with Action Ability, a group promoting the integration of people with disabilities in Belfast. Mousa attends their art classes, helping young disabled people with painting and making crafts.  “He wants to be accepted in the community,” said Roisin McKanna, volunteer coordinator at Action Ability, “and he’s done it in a beautiful way through art.”

Marwan said he owes Belfast’s art community a huge debt. “When I came here, people helped me,” he added, “I feel at peace when I’m helping others. This is my way of paying back.”

 

This story is part of a series exploring the ways people across the UK are showing refugees and asylum-seekers a #GreatBritishWelcome.