All too often we hear local Yezidi camp youth say, "I will leave the country because Iraq is not good. Iraq has nothing to offer anyone." That, I would argue, is a perspective based upon living in a tent, with horizons ending at the tent doorway where no vision has been given to strive to see an alternative possibility, where horizons have not been expanded.
One can never minimize the atrocity of August 3rd, 2014 and the human devastation that it brought in its wake, however eight years later as we walk the camps we still see those who have done nothing to improve their condition. Those who sit and wait for handouts, becoming increasingly frustrated and bitter as the years blend and merge into the future that speedily becomes history. Truly “without a vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29).
We have somehow inherited students of all ages, those rescued from ISIS, and herein may lie a key, those whose childhood and education was taken from them, those who now want everything that education and future holds for them. Those who will wrestle to make up the years lost. Those who are like sponges, eager to learn, open to exploring every avenue. Those who come to register for a literacy course, and return fifteen minutes later with ten friends who all register.
The Department of Plastic Arts at the University of Duhok holds an annual graduation exhibition to which we took a group of our art students, Syrian asylum seekers, and Yezidi survivors. This year’s exhibition displayed 144 paintings of the graduating fourth year students plus paintings of the other levels, all representing many streams of Kurdistan and its culture. All inspiring in different ways, inspirational from the perspective of content and context, and to cultivate hopes and dreams for the future. We asked our students to share their thoughts on the event, and the paintings.
“I wish to speak about this painting in particular because of all the paintings, it immediately attracted my attention. The painting is of Baba Chawish. After the genocide I never knew that such freedom of expression existed. That we as a minority group, the Yezidis, have the right to paint our culture and our religion. I was shocked to learn that we have the right, and that Dildar Khudeda, a Yezidi, was amongst the highly respected graduates.
My entire thinking and perspective changed in the course of our time there. The visit, the incredible art, the freedom of expression, the integration of students showed me that I too, could have a place there amongst future graduates. Only our Springs of Hope Family would think about taking us to such an incredible event and showing us possibilities for our future.”
Kristina. Yezidi survivor of ISIS.
“It was the first time that I visited the University, and the first time that I had seen an art exhibition apart from ours. To be honest, I loved all the paintings but I think that we at SOHF have produced some paintings that are way better than theirs! My favourite painting was of the mountains and the lake, but I could have done better.”
Walid. Displaced Yezidi from Shingal.
“I came straight from one of my final exams to the exhibition. I have been very stressed during the exam time as I have to get the best grades and succeed. From the moment that I approached the University, the atmosphere changed. My stress fell away and I became expectant. I never knew that there was such freedom to paint, and that each style, and the content would be honored, admired and respected. My brain was in total overload, it could not contain the beauties that I was seeing, of our ancient history depicted on canvas. The history of Iraq, there in front of my eyes. It was too much for me to take in. I fell in love with the work of Zubaida Zahid, her work was totally inspiring bringing our history to life.
The visit came at the right time, it encouraged me to know that my future lies there at the University, and beyond, not in the art department although this will always be my hobby, but as a medical student on the way to becoming a doctor.”
Nasser. Syrian asylum seeker.
“We were in the University for the opening ceremony of the exhibition, which was very formal and inspiring. I enjoyed looking both at the art work and all the different types of people, those in suits and ties and those in jeans. Women too were there together with the men. Everyone belonged, everyone had a place. It was wonderful to see equal opportunity for all.
I was fascinated by the paintings of our Kurdish history, of the period when our grandfathers went out to defend our homes. Hashim Mikhaeel was definitely my favourite artist, his depiction of our past, our tradition, clothes and culture was very important to me, reminding me of my historical roots.
I looked at the progression of the four years of art. There are many things that I have not yet learned but I could see that in some areas, I am as good as the students. I was very comfortable there, I could easily see myself studying in the University, and I know that I will achieve this.”
Rozhen. Displaced Yezidi from Shingal.
“It was my first time in the University, a place so full of life. The exhibition was wonderful, full of colour and action. The exhibition encouraged me to practise more, to find a specific style. I took some ideas which I will try in the next weeks but really I thought that we already are better than most of the graduating artists.”
Hanan. Displaced Yezidi from Shingal.
"Wow! It was an amazing day, different from every other day in my life. It was my first visit to Duhok, to the University and to the art exhibition, to be amongst huge numbers of people visiting to see the artwork, and also the teachers and art specialists. Many paintings both caught my eye and touched my heart, and caused me to think again about my painting, my style and how to develop it. What impressed me the most was that although there were so many people there, every room inside was packed, and the outside area was full of visitors and tv people, there was a quiet and there was respect. Maybe this is characteristic of art exhibitions, there can be many people but you can still be in your own space with quiet to look and think? I know that when we work with Mr. Salam, our room is always a big mess, there is noise in sketching and thinking out loud but I think that our inner peace reflects on the room, making an atmosphere of peace and quiet. One of a series by artist Hashim Mikaeel inspired me in particular, it is a traditional Kurdish painting but reminded me of our Yezidi exodus from Shingal when Daesh entered and displaced us. The exhibition inspired me to learn more styles, to study harder because I realised that I want the University to be a part of my life, and myself a part of this wonderful place. Thank you to SOHF for always inspiring us and showing us “more and further” ". Lozina, Displaced Yezidi from Shingal.
“This was an important day for me, when you live in a tent you can’t see beyond the next tent, there is no place for vision. I came alive at the event, honestly, I did not understand most of the paintings but I received vision. I began to breathe, and as air entered my lungs, I began to picture myself as a student in the University, although I know that it is no more than a dream. Air entered my lungs, delight entered my eyes. I was so happy as I saw more, I saw beyond the tent, beyond the camp and actually beyond the exhibition.
Since arriving in Kurdistan I thought that University was for the men. I was wrong, there were so many successful women artists and graduates. My favourite paintings were those of women, I don't have great explanations as to why I connected with these, I guess an emotional connection. I don't have schooling so I will never be part of this amazing place. I feel sad about that but I will dream again and push for more than I am and have at the moment.”
Khalida, Displaced Yezidi from Shingal.
Our life and work here has gone through, and inevitably will go through many stages and seasons. We are in a season of growth, to which our farm garden bears witness that even in drought there is fruit. We have members of our student family who after eight years are only now hearing possible news of family members who are still in Syria, and we have those who are pressing into education and future goals. We have those whose “now” is still deeply connected to the past eight years of genocide, and those who are running forward pulling their future down with a passion and determination. We are equally here for both groups. We poured over photos this week of the brother of one of our girls, as he was eight years ago before he was taken into captivity, and the possible photo of him now, still in Syria. Vital almost dangerous moments, when the captor has demanded $500 just for a phone call, the sister wanting to know from two photos, “is this my brother?” How could we know, how could we look at eyes, eyebrows, nose, and say to this hopeful young girl “It could be”. Just yesterday we aided another of our young men with phone calls across the border with possibly two of his sisters, knowing how much depended and hung upon that one brief call. Try talking with these youngsters about art exhibitions and the future, naturally, they would be unable to comprehend. Talk would fall flat on these kids who are planning steps of rescue, pulling past into present. “For still the vision awaits its appointed time, it hastens to the end, it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not delay.” Habakkuk 2: 3 For those grabbing hold of their vision, and for those waiting, we are here creating and maintaining the environment where vision can grow and come to fulfillment.