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Peaceful still life

Iraq, January 30, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps  </span>
    19-year-old Saraw. Photo: Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps

A lifetime of conflict, displacement and uncertainty could make for some pretty dark art. A painter growing up during some of Iraq’s most violent years might find themselves replaying dismal and disturbing scenes with brushstrokes across canvas.

But not 19-year-old Saraw. The colors of her palette are as bold as a young life lived courageously, but what she portrays in her art is much more positive that what she’s endured.

“Because I was oppressed, I don’t like painting that is dark or violent,” she says.

In her studies at a Mercy Corps-sponsored art institute in the northern Iraqi city of Khanaqin, she chooses to paint still lifes blooming with vibrant flowers of red, yellow and blue. She chooses to paint warm, smiling faces that look “joyful from their hearts.” That’s what she wants to see in her world today, because her earlier life certainly didn’t imitate her present art.

In 1997 — when she was only five years old — Saraw’s family was suddenly driven from their home in Khanaqin. As part of an attempt to lay claim to that disputed city, officers from Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party came to her family’s house to confront her father and three older brothers. The officers gave the Jalal men an ultimatum: renounce your Kurdish language and culture and become “Arabized,” or else go to prison and then into displacement.

Saraw’s family chose to keep their heritage, and so they were first sent to jail and then into exile to Ramadi, a city to the west of Baghdad, more than 150 miles from their home. Their fate was similar to more than a million other Kurdish people who survived a brutal regime that was intent on purging them.

Rather than languish in a place they didn’t know — a place where there were few work opportunities for a Kurdish family — they bravely returned to their home region about a year after being displaced to Ramadi. They settled in Kelar, a small city about an hour from Khanaqin. There they made a temporary life for themselves, hoping and waiting for the day that they could return home.

It came several years later, in 2003 when Saddam Hussein’s regime fell. Saraw’s father traveled to Khanaqin to see what had happened to their house; it was still there and relatively unscathed, but had been taken by the former regime and sold to another family.

And so Saraw’s father had to buy back their own house — but they were home after six years of displacement.

In the years that followed, Saraw finished her secondary school and, along the way, discovered an interest and talent for art. She applied and was accepted to Khanaqin’s art institute, which is no easy feat, since only 30 students make the grade each year.

Mercy Corps has supported the art institute by building six classrooms and providing a variety of furniture and equipment. According to Majid Shaliai, the school’s director, that support is an investment in both talented young artists and the stability of this area.

“We consider the student’s work as public art for peace,” he explains. “It encourages harmony and happiness in a way that brings people together and makes them proud of their culture and heritage. Mercy Corps is helping rebuild our community through this art institute, the work it produces and the artists who go on to be an important part of our society.”

Saraw agrees. “Art helps develop culture,” she said. “If there isn’t art, society doesn’t progress. And we need art more than ever right now.”

Wearing a bold red sweater that emphasizes one of her favorite colors in the palette, Saraw works on a lithograph that is a bit of a departure from her traditional style. But studying many disciplines here at the institute — a place that also offers studies in music, drawing and sculpture — helps her prepare what she wants to do next.

“I want to become an art teacher,” she says. “Painting is great for children, because it develops their hands, creativity and differentiation of colors. It helps them develop their minds.”

And so, even as she works on pieces for an upcoming exhibition, Saraw has already been thinking about how her art will help others. That’s a bold, beautiful idea.