ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — On the occasion of World Refugee Day June 20, six talented Syrian artists participated in an exhibition that was organized by the United Nations refugee agency field office in Alexandria with the cooperation of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which hosted the event.
Aseer Al Madaien, the head of the UNHCR field office in Alexandria, told Al-Monitor that the reason for holding the exhibition was to support the refugees in expressing themselves.
The participants, whose ages ranged from 12 to 45, took part in the exhibition showcasing ink-and-pencil drawings as well as photographs. It was the first time that the participants had displayed their works to the public.
In an elegant dark suit and with a shy smile, Ghayth Utabashi, a 14-year-old Syrian refugee, welcomed the attendants who paused before his drawings. Utabashi’s drawings portrayed cartoon characters that he drew with pencil while watching them on TV.
Utabashi stopped going to school two years ago when he was unable to transfer his transcripts from his school in Cairo to a school in Alexandria. His family then decided that what he had studied was enough and that he should devote himself to drawing.
Utabashi's father told Al-Monitor that he tried to look for cultural centers so that his son could continue to study art. When he was unable to find a center, he decided to provide his son with all the tools he needed to practice drawing at home. “Every day I sit and watch him draw and I feel very happy, even more than him. Maybe because now we are looking for any achievement and my son’s accomplishments are an extension to my own accomplishments,” Utabashi’s father said.
Utabashi told Al-Monitor that he is planning to specialize in drawing at the hands of a private tutor, as he cannot go to the College of Fine Arts that requires financial resources his family does not have.
Adnan Yabrudi, 20, participated in the exhibition with photographs of some of Alexandria’s sights. Yabrudi began to practice photography in Egypt by taking photographs of his friends, who then encouraged him to create a Facebook page for his artwork. Through the Facebook page, Yabrudi began to receive requests to photograph concerts and private shows. Thus photography has become not only a hobby for Yabrudi, but also a source of income.
Yabrudi told Al-Monitor that he wishes he had his own camera so that he could save the money he spends on renting them. While he plans to continue photography, he said it will not be his primary profession. “I want to study electronic engineering. Unfortunately, however, I am still in high school. I lost my [high school] certificate in Syria and I could not go to college, so I had to repeat high school in Egypt.” he said.
Hala Awa, 28, stopped going to her college classes because of the war. Awa participated in the exhibition with mandalas and doodles that approach issues such as the suffering of Syrian children.
Talking about her art, Awa told Al-Monitor that she chooses her designs based on her own feelings. “I didn't know the name of this art before and I did not learn it through lessons or tutorials. I was interested in drawing nature and fashion designs when I was in Syria. However, since I came to Egypt — and due to the changes that occurred in my life because of the war in Syria — I found myself drawing with ink and it was enough for me to express whatever crosses my mind in black and white surreal lines.”
Awa is not the only one who took up drawing as a form of escaping reality. Tasnim Mansur, 14, told Al-Monitor about her own experience, saying, “The first time I drew in Egypt was in prison.”
In 2013, Mansur’s family tried to travel by sea from Egypt to Europe, but they were arrested. Mansur’s mother said, “It was a painful experience. We were stuck in the water for six hours and we saw death with our own eyes. We were then detained at the police station for two months and Tasnim looked distracted the entire time. The UNHCR provided her with pens and papers and she started drawing and was able to overcome her overwhelming frustration.”
Mansur participated in the exhibition with pencil drawings of different characters such as Aylan, the Kurdish toddler who was a victim of one of the illegal immigration trips. She told Al-Monitor that she wishes to go to Europe to study, that she hopes to become a doctor in the future and wants to continue drawing as a hobby.
Syrian artist Abir Ayubi participated in the exhibition with watercolor paintings of old Damascene houses, the Corniche of Alexandria and nature scenes. Ayubi told Al-Monitor that she works daily on her paintings from midnight until dawn, after she finishes her household chores.
She said that she had long wished to participate in an exhibition to see how the public would react to her paintings, but she never expected to participate in a big exhibition at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. “The exhibition encouraged me and I will start promoting my paintings so that I can use them as a source of living. Only God knows how hard it is for me to sell them. They are like my children, but I want to help my family,” Ayubi said. “Of course our situation now is completely different from when we were in Syria. There, I was only studying and obtaining certificates, and I was a member of the Syrian Fashion Designers Society. But I never had to work."
Ayubi talked about her husband, saying, “He is my main supporter. His work as a craftsman made him value what I do. So he provides me with colored pencils and other tools, but the problem is that I cannot get good-quality colored pencils because they are expensive.”
With crayons, Bayan Tayfour, 15, depicted the situation in Syria in a picture of men, women and children walking on a knife covered with blood. “The image says that even if you kill us, we will still raise the flag of Syria,” Tayfour told Al-Monitor.
Madaien believes that the works that did not revolve around war or refugees “highlight the participants’ desire to continue life and see other aspects of it.” She added, “The young age of the participants was the most remarkable thing and it is an indication that we should focus on the youth. Of course, UNHCR pays attention to this age group, but today [the participants] say that they are present and more enthusiastic.”