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Brushes with adversity: refugee artist in Burnaby paints stories of war

“It’s important for me to [tell] people what kind of life we had and people still have back home … in those countries.”

A chai latte in one hand, Harem Jamal, a Kurdish artist from Iraqi Kurdistan, takes out his phone to reveal a painting close to his heart.

In the painting is a boy, squatting with his palms on his cheeks, and grease smeared all over his skin and clothing. But, it's the boy's facial expression that captures attention — one of despair, innocence and longing.

The painting is so close to Jamal's heart that he never put it up for sale.

“I created that piece because I was at the same age, around nine years old … when I had to work in a brick factory with my father in the refugee camp,” he said. “After school, I had to go to the brick factory, which was really hard work. So I was always looking at the other children playing. That’s why I love it.… I love it a lot.”

Jamal’s childhood had been overtaken by war and displacement. When he was just two years old, he explained, his hometown in Kurdistan, Iraq was bombed, forcing him and his family to flee to a refugee camp in Iran. They returned briefly after a year only for it to be bombed again, forcing them to live at another camp for eight more years.

It was there that Jamal received his first set of coloured pencils, opening the door to his life as an artist.

“My art is about the story of my life, my childhood, what we lost and may lose because of war,” he said.

Paintings for him were more than about beauty, it was about the conveyinng experience — “if the audience sees my art and receives the message, that’s important for me.”

Jamal restarted his whole life when he arrived in Canada in 2017. At that time he spoke many languages but not English. Art was his way of communicating what war did to him, his childhood, his family and his country.

The paintings depict the reality of war, despair and pain; and he believes it is important to create that awareness in countries where there is no widespread lived experience of war.

Jamal, whose last exhibition was at Burnaby’s Deer Lake Gallery, had recently collaborated with musicians from the U.S. as a visual artist for a project called Songs of Hope, which aimed to tell stories of war through music and art.

“They saw my art and liked it… especially the story behind it,” he said. “So they wrote a song based on my art.”

Although Jamal couldn't be present, it was a proud moment, he said, as they toured across America in 2022. He is also participating in an art project in Italy called Stories From the Camp alongside 26,000 artists from around the world. The project by Imago Mundi / Benetton Foundation will feature visual documentaries, interviews and over 150 works of art, including Jamal’s in a 10 cm-by-12 cm format, depicting stories from camp.

When not painting, Jamal works at Immigrant Services Society of BC to help refugees come and settle into this new country, and teaches art at New Westminster’s Anvil Theatre. He’s also the face and subject of a documentary short film, Harem - Memories of Home.