Beauty from turmoil: A refugee finds solace in art

  • Arts
  • Thursday, 19 Jun 2014

Crafted with care: Meida Noorbahr 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.

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.

“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.

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