Women

Published: Friday June 20, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday June 30, 2014 MYT 4:55:47 PM

Beauty from turmoil: A refugee finds solace in art

Crafted with care: Meida is a very talented artist who specialises in the Islamic art of decorative illumination. - AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

Crafted with care: Meida is a very talented artist who specialises in the Islamic art of decorative illumination. - AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

In conjunction with World Refugee Day tomorrow, one refugee shares how she uses art to cope with the hardship of being a displaced person.

Every year, millions of people around the world are displaced by war, persecution and severe human rights violations.

With their lives at stake, these individuals are forced to uproot themselves and run away from their homeland, leaving behind their homes and sometimes even family members, to seek refuge in a foreign country. The consequences: Families are torn apart, and lives forever changed.

According to the UNHCR’s Global Trends Report for 2012, the top five source countries of refugees are Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Sudan.

Malaysia is a host country to approximately 144,000 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees). The majority of them are from Myanmar while close to 10,600 are from countries such as Sri Lanka, Somalia, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Displaced persons experience great despair, worry, anxiety and hopelessness. Yet, somehow, they have to muster the strength and courage to cope and survive.

World Refugee Day is observed on June 20 each year to create awareness of refugees’ situation worldwide, to acknowledge their resilience, and to mobilise public support for their efforts in rebuilding their lives.

“Refugees are ordinary people like us who have been displaced from their homes by extraordinary events,” says UNHCR Malaysian representative Richard Towle via e-mail.

“Refugees have been forced to leave their countries due to war, armed conflict, persecution, and serious human rights abuses.

“While in exile, their needs are like ours: Family, health, employment, security and a future,” adds Towle.

However, in this country, the lack of laws in managing the issue of refugees gives rise to great uncertainty in refugees’ lives. They are at risk of arrest, detention and deportation.

“Living in Malaysia without legal status is difficult and a huge disadvantage for refugees. They cannot work lawfully, their children can’t go to ordinary school, and they live in fear of exploitation,” explains Towle.

Refugees can only take on informal work or menial jobs that are avoided by locals, such as cleaning the streets, washing dishes in restaurants, and waste management.

Intricate and exquisite geometric patterns feature prominently in arabesque art.
Intricate and exquisite geometric patterns feature prominently in arabesque art.

One positive aspect, though, is that refugees are not confined in camps, have freedom of movement, and can be empowered to find ways to cope and rebuild their lives with dignity.

Her younger days

One such person who is rising above the turmoil is Meida, 36.

She was born and grew up in Gorgan, about 400km north-east of Iran’s capital city of Tehran.

As a young girl, she loved to draw. She could spend hours doing that. However, her parents much preferred her to concentrate on her studies, which she dutifully did. Still, she found the time to secretly indulge in her hobby.

She recalls that her schoolteacher recognised her talent.

“My younger sister, who wasn’t keen on art, was given an art piece to work on one day. So she enlisted my help.

The Islamic art of decorative illumination requires great mathematical precision.
The Islamic art of decorative illumination requires great mathematical precision.

“When she handed in the work, the teacher could tell at one look that it wasn’t her work. Our teacher said, ‘This is done by your sister!’” reminisces Meida during an interview last week at her home in Kuala Lumpur.

Throughout her schooling years, she continued to hone her skill. She studied art and calligraphy up to diploma level.

“At 17, I moved to Mashhad (east of Tehran),” she says. “I studied Mathematics at the Islamic Azad University of Mashhad.

“After I graduated, I began teaching Grades 6 to 8 at a school in Tehran. My students were mostly girls. I taught for 10 years.

“Also, I started to learn drawing in Jahad University of Mashhad. After two terms, I continued with private classes. I had several teachers over 10 years because I wanted to learn different methods.”

The artworks done by Meida and her coursemates were displayed at two exhibitions at the end of their course. And during the 10 years, she worked for an artist-cum-gallery owner who helped them sell their works in Europe.

While at university, Meida met her husband-to-be, Mahson. They fell in love and got married.

He encouraged her to pursue art, prompting her to enrol for painting classes.

Meida's interest in art began in childhood, and her skill was honed during her college and post-university days.

Mahson himself is a creative soul who first wrote poetry – Meida says he is “a good poet” – and was also an artist before he became a journalist who focused on writing political articles. Over time, Meida discovered that she was particularly drawn to the Islamic art form of decorative illumination (or arabesque) that is used to adorn written Quranic verses.

“When I started studying this kind of Islamic art, I realised that I love this art form. It is in my blood. It’s my passion, besides my job,” she says.

This painstaking art form features geometric patterns and calls for mathematical precision. Artworks in this vein are symbolic, intricate and exquisite. Meida explains that it involves nine steps to create a piece of illumination artwork. One can imagine the amount of focus and concentration needed to produce such pieces!

Most patterns in Islamic art use geometric forms, mainly circles, squares or rectangles, stars and polygons. Basically, shamsa (pronounced “sham-ser”), which means sun, refers to the circular shape or the rosette. And lohe (pronounced “loh”), Arabic for board, means rectangle.

“I am very lucky because I have a wonderful husband and two lovely children. Life was good but, lately it’s been very stressful,” says Meida.

Their family was in Iran at the time of the Iranian presidential election in 2009. Widespread post-election protests erupted in the cities, and hundreds of people were detained, including politicians, lawyers, journalists and students. The newspaper that Mehdi used to work at was closed down.

Later, he found out that the police had arrested two of his colleagues. The prospect of Mehdi getting detained for his political activism was very high. He was compelled to make the very difficult decision of fleeing his home country.

“After three months,” says Meida, “I, too, decided to leave my life in Iran and move to Malaysia to join him.

“As a refugee, we had no jobs, no safety and a long wait for UNHCR documents,” she recalls.

(According to the UNHCR, asylum-seekers approach the organisation to verify their status by having their claims verified. UNHCR’s registration and refugee status determination procedure involves a thorough interview and investigative process, and can take some time. It is through this procedure that the UNHCR ensures a person has a valid claim for refugee status.)

Towle says: “In a very difficult environment, the UNHCR provides as much protection as we can, such as by issuing identity documents for refugees. We work with NGOs and with refugee communities themselves to provide access to some education, healthcare support, and opportunities for self-reliance through empowering refugees and building capacity.

“But, of course, this is not enough. Given the number of people in need of help, there is always scope to do more. Understanding and generosity from the host community is always important to help refugees in their time of greatest need.”

Keeping sane

Meida’s art has proven to be her lifeline, helping her to retain her sanity during desperate times.

“Drawing helps me focus, and relax, because this kind of art requires such precision and accuracy. When I am busy with that, I do not think of anything else at all. This art helps me manage my feelings, whether it is sadness, anger or despair,” she says in halting English that sounds quite melodic at times.

Before her family came over to Malaysia three years ago, they hardly spoke any English. Meida’s naive tongue is Persian. She is overjoyed and proud of her teenage son who recently scored a perfect 100% for English language – as well as in Maths and Science – at school.

For two years now, she has been working – providing administrative support – at a centre run by an NGO, the Malaysian Social Research Institute.

Meida once embarked on a project to beautify one of the bare walls of the centre by painting a mural that depicts ocean life. That project took her an entire week to complete single-handedly.

“This centre has provided my family with a lot of help and support. My son has obtained a scholarship through the centre,” says a grateful Meida. “I really appreciate the people who have helped us, especially Siti Hajar Hassan, Yolanda Lopez and Lia Syed. They are so supportive.”

As her savings dwindle, Meida has to find other ways to make ends meet – and once again, her art comes to her rescue, as she will be selling her works at a UNHCR event.

Meida’s artwork will be on sale at the arts and crafts bazaar tomorrow and on Sunday at the Annexe Gallery, Central Market, Kuala Lumpur, as part of the UNHCR’s week-long activities to mark World Refugee Day.

To find out more about the UNHCR, go to unhcr.org.my/wrd or facebook.com/MyWRD2014.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, UNHCR, refugee, World Refugee Day, human rights

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