Refugee Artists Seek to Give Back to Community

15 August, 2018

Refugees carry few material goods with them when they flee war, violence or persecution in the homelands. But they do bring skills to their new countries.

An exhibit in the United States shows that sometimes these skills are artistic. The Sandy Spring Museum in the state of Maryland is currently displaying the work of refugee artists from Iraq, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Some of the works on exhibit represent the memories of the artists' homelands.

"My hometown is Wollo," said Fetun Getachew, an artist from Ethiopia. "There is a marketplace once a week. People meet there at the markets for not only buying or selling (but) just to meet together for so many purposes."

Her paintings show such gatherings.

Iraqi artist Ahmad Alkarkhi was well known for his work in his country. Violence there and in Syria forced him to flee to America in 2009. About his paintings of Iraq since then, he said he wants to show Americans good things about his country instead of war.

Visitors study some of the works on display in the refugee exhibit at the Sandy Spring Museum in Maryland. Many of the works depict scenes from the artists' home countries.
Visitors study some of the works on display in the refugee exhibit at the Sandy Spring Museum in Maryland. Many of the works depict scenes from the artists' home countries.

For Alkarkhi, being in a new country brings changes to his art.

"In my country, we don't have a lot of color there, just gray and brown," he said.

Alkarkhi said the clear seasonal changes he has experienced in the U.S. led him to add a lot of color to his work.

The museum is in Sandy Spring, Maryland, a community of about 6,000 people near Washington, D.C.

Its website says the center is a living history museum where people can gather and "cultural artists create experiences for the entire community to enjoy."

Allison Weiss is the museum's executive director. She says the exhibit shows what refugees can provide to America.

"There's so much talk in the news now about refugees, and how many people we should let into the country, and what are they contributing. And I think this exhibit shows that there's individuals behind the word 'refugees' and they have all sorts of talents that maybe we're not hearing about from the news."

During the day, Alkarkhi is a caretaker at an apartment complex in Riverdale, Maryland.

But at night and on weekends, he paints in the living room of his small apartment.

"Painting for me [is] like music. Each painting, different music. I just tell myself, ‘let me dance with colors on the canvas."

He said creating art is his way to give back to America for helping him and his family build a new life in safety.

"America gives refugees a lot of things. I want to do beautiful painting, and I give it to this country and to the people to enjoy with my art," he said.

I'm Mario Ritter.

June Soh reported this story for VOA News. Mario Ritter adapted it for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

persecution –n. to treat someone cruelly or unfairly especially because of race or religious or political beliefs

talent –n. a special ability that lets someone do something well

encounters –n. to meet without expecting or meaning to

exhibit –n. a collection of objects that are presented to the public in a public place

contribute –v. to give something to help a person, group, cause or organization

canvas –n. a strong rough cloth used to bags, tents, sails and for painting