In Houston, Former Refugees are Transformed Through Their Art

With the delicacy of a conductor, Ammar Alobaidi runs his right index finger across his acrylic work — a bright, abstract piece that reflects his love for cubism and three sources of inspiration: Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian and Salvador Dalí.

“The paintings and the colors look like music,” he said. “It has tones.”

His bachelor pad, a modern apartment overlooking a turquoise pool, near the upscale Galleria complex in Houston, Texas, doubles as his art studio and personal gallery. The space is sparse but immaculate. Original canvases occupy every wall.

Alobaidi, 48, feels completely at home here, calling Houston his “mother city,” even though he is originally from Baghdad, Iraq.

“I’m a local artist, not a refugee anymore,” he said. “This feeling gives me more power to create more beautiful things.”

Watch: Ammar Alobaidi, Immigrant and Artist, Calls Houston Home Now

Formerly an established nuclear engineer, Alobaidi resettled in the United States nearly four years ago after a life divided between Iraq, Jordan and Libya. In Houston, home to the country’s largest resettled refugee community, he made a living as a case manager with YMCA International Services’ refugee cash assistance program, in part to give back to the community that afforded him “the opportunity to develop,” but also to fund his passion.

“A lot of professional artists come here as refugees or as immigrants,” said Joe Saceric, director of Community Relations at YMCA International Services. “Whereas they might have been a well-respected professional artist in their country of origin, now they’re having to start from scratch.”

‘I am limitless’

Texas withdrew from the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program in 2016, citing security concerns. But in Houston, the YMCA has continued to provide resettlement and legal support, in more than 20 languages, to clients representing roughly 92 countries, Saceric said.

YMCA International Services noticed the range of talent within its own refugee and immigrant community, including Alobaidi, and hosted an art exhibit and silent auction in 2016 — the first of its kind — called “Triumph of the Human Spirit.”

Tina Aldebashi, a 29-year-old featured immigrant artist from Yemen and outreach worker at YMCA International Services, recalled her move to Houston as a moment of self-discovery.

“The girl who came two years ago to Houston is not the same girl sitting here and talking today,” she told VOA.

“I just wanted to explore — I’ve always wanted to explore since I was a child — but I was limited to the resources I had, or the places I could go to explore,” Aldebashi said. “When I came here, I just thought, ‘I am limitless.’”

Out of darkness

Aldebashi’s medium of choice is resin, one that interprets her emotions but also “holds colors beautifully.” Apart from a “rebellious” charcoal phase, she admits her life has not been one of extreme hardship. Nonetheless, she has made it her mission to empower refugee women through the creation and sale of artwork, an idea based on her personal upbringing.

“I have seen the women in my family, and how reliant they are on their husbands,” she said. “You are an individual; you should be independent enough to do things for yourself, and not be reliant on somebody to help you.”

Alobaidi’s earlier works, like Aldebashi’s, were occasionally dark. Inside his apartment, he reveals one of fallen, dismembered corpses, reflecting the horrors of war. But his newer canvases reveal “strength of love, solidarity,” and “exchanges of generosity,” impressions that he says come as a surprise to some viewers.

“‘Oh, we thought you are a refugee,’” he said. “They thought they will see sadness … they see the opposite.”

Alobaidi, who recently left YMCA to pursue his art full time, claims to paint feelings, not figures — a truth that speaks to his positivity, as he looks ahead.

“I am sure that I will succeed, because [in] this country, when you work hard, you will succeed.” He lights up, like the paintings that surround him. “That is an equation.”

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