Far from the Turmoil of Home, Six Houston Artists Pursue Their Creative Dreams

These refugees and immigrants explore their deepest emotions through their art.

By Roxanna Asgarian April 17, 2017 Published in the May 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Ammar Alobaidi knows what it’s like to arrive in a new country and have to learn everything all over again. Born in Baghdad, Iraq, he lived in Libya and Jordan before coming to Houston, in 2014, as a refugee. How would he get a driver’s license in this strange new place, 7,000 miles away from the city of his birth? Where would he find an apartment? What about a bank account?

Day by day, he put the pieces together. Now, just three years later, he works for YMCA International, helping other refugees access available benefits, just as someone from the organization once assisted him. He likes the job and believes it’s important. But, he says, it’s when he leaves the office for the day that he pursues his passion.

Alobaidi is an artist who believes in fighting darkness with light and color. This is what he does in the evenings. His bright, cubism-inspired paintings bear little trace of the devastation the Iraq War wreaked on his home country. “In my art, my message to the people is that life is beautiful. Enjoy this life. See the beauty in life, go ahead and see it,” he says. “Don’t think always of the trouble and the bad things.”

Of course, in his way, Alobaidi is still confronting those bad things, processing grief and loss, like so many before him, through creative means. He’s one of six artists, all refugees and immigrants connected to YMCA International, featured in an impressive group show at St. John’s School last fall. All of them agreed to share their stories—and work—with Houstonia.

Joe Saceric, YMCA International’s director of community services, says the organization held the show to help nurture their clients’ artistic careers, and to introduce them to a community unaware of their talents. “We wanted to offer them an opportunity to be put in front of potential collectors to help them get some of the materials necessary—the professional bio, the business cards—that make a foundation for becoming a professional artist here in the United States, to get more exposure here in Houston.”

Many Houstonians don’t know about the YMCA’s unique local offshoot here. YMCA International was formed in the late-’70s to assist the large waves of South Asian immigrants, particularly refugees from Vietnam, who landed on the coastal plains, fleeing their home countries. Today the organization provides housing and rental assistance to refugees, as well as legal counsel for immigrants and those seeking U.S. citizenship, plus English classes and a host of other services. Since its founding, YMCA International has assisted close to 30,000 people.

“Houston was such a hub for refugees in the late-’70s, and we just continued building from that kernel of a thought back in the day,” says Saceric. “You pretty much name it, and there’s a support service within the organization that does that.”

The world is in the midst of a refugee crisis—in 2015, there were 65.3 million people forcibly displaced from their homes worldwide, according to the United Nations, with the count increasing by 33,000 each day. Texas has led the nation in refugee resettlement; in 2015, 7,280 of them settled here, on top of 8,500 immigrants not technically classified as refugees but who needed emergency assistance.

A full 40 percent of those new arrivals landed in Harris County, arguably the most diverse metropolitan area in America, with Houston at the forefront of the resettlement movement. We are a city of immigrants—27.7 percent of the city’s 2.2 million people—with a well-deserved reputation for generosity. But while local leadership wants Houston to remain an open, welcoming city, our state and federal governments have been pushing in another direction.

Last year, Governor Greg Abbott announced that Texas would withdraw from the federal government’s refugee-resettlement program. As a result, instead of the state funneling federal funds to agencies, the agencies themselves are receiving and distributing them. In our area, it’s the YMCA of Greater Houston that’s taken charge.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has made two attempts at a travel ban, the second of which was signed in March and placed a 120-day hold on the entire refugee program before a federal court halted it. Regardless of the latest ban's ultimate fate, it’s sent a clear message to the international community that America has shifted in the new political climate. And fewer refugees are coming in.

“We fully expect that the 50,000-refugee ceiling for 2017 will be what occurs,” says YMCA International VP for Global Initiatives Jeff Watkins, adding that 2016 saw 85,000 refugees enter the country.

Had the ban been in place at their time of entry, the artists featured in this story would not have been allowed into the country. “They would be overseas waiting to be resettled,” says Watkins.

For his part, Mayor Sylvester Turner has made it clear where he stands on the immigration issue. Late last year, he announced the city’s new Office for New Americans, aiming to ease newcomers’ transition into Houston life. And after President Trump’s first travel ban was implemented, the mayor released a statement.

“I know there are a lot of families and children who are afraid and worried right now about what might happen to them,” it read. “I want them to know that Houston is, and always has been, a welcoming city, where we value and appreciate diversity. HPD is not the Immigration and Naturalization Service.”

YMCA International wants to remind Houstonians why immigrants come here in the first place. “Not everybody comes to us from a refugee camp, but many are refugees. Some of them don’t know anything other than a refugee camp. When they get here, all they want to do is be part of our society,” Saceric says. “There’s a stigma for both refugees and immigrants, but luckily, Houston is a very welcoming community. We wanted to really show how these individuals can contribute to so many areas of Houston.”

Watkins agrees, adding that the additional restrictions could mean we miss out as a community. “It’s not just the artists. It’s the engineers; it’s the doctors; it’s even the ones that maybe aren’t professionals but are willing to work hard. Refugees and other immigrants are actually some of the most entrepreneurial members of our community. We are concerned that fewer will have that opportunity.”

Some of the Houstonians featured in these pages worked full-time as artists in their home countries; some had never shown their work until recently. Here in the United States, as they’ve focused on creating a sustainable life, most, like Alobaidi, have taken day jobs, as cabdrivers and front-desk clerks and cooks. It’s during their free time, over late nights in their garage studios or at their living room tables, that they express their deepest emotions, sifting through their former lives and pursuing what they, to a one, consider their true calling.

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Ammar Alobaidi was a trained engineer in his home country of Iraq, but chooses to work in refugee services at YMCA International so he can focus on his cubism-inspired paintings. “The money, it’s not everything—for me at least,” he says. “I wanted to start with art.”

Ammar Alobaidi

Ammar Alobaidi’s eyes light up when he talks about his childhood in Baghdad, Iraq. “Baghdad’s a beautiful city—it was—a very beautiful city,” he says. “Anywhere at that time that you would go, you could see paintings, sculptures. I saw a lot of art, and the art was very near to my heart.”

Art was Alobaidi’s first passion, but he studied nuclear engineering in college. After taking a job with an oil company, in 1997, he moved to Libya. He would stay there for the next decade, during which time his home country fell into chaos. Except for a brief trip to see his family in 2005, he hasn’t returned. “I miss Baghdad—original Baghdad, not Baghdad now,” he says. “I miss everything over there, of course.”

He left Libya for Jordan in 2007, and decided to change careers, taking a less stressful job at a non-profit and devoting more time to his art. “I decided to start to do something I like,” Alobaidi says. “Yes, the oil industry, it gives you good money. But the money, it’s not everything—for me at least. So I wanted to start with art.”

While Alobaidi was out of the country, the Iraq War raged. His family lost their home in Baghdad, leaving Alobaidi without a place to return to. (His parents now live in London, while his two sisters married and still live in Baghdad.)

Since coming to Houston as a refugee in 2014, Alobaidi, now 47, spends his days working for YMCA International and his free time at coffee shops and galleries, trying to make contacts in the art world. Many of his paintings, done in acrylic on canvas, hang inside his Gulfton apartment; other bubble-wrapped pieces lean against walls and sit tucked inside closets.

One rolled-up and taped artwork, Story of a City, measures 15 feet by 5 feet; it’s too big for his home. Alobaidi considers it his masterpiece, likening the piece to Picasso’s Guérnica. It follows a person’s life from birth, to adulthood, love, children, and death.

He thinks of his artwork as a form of rebellion. “So I rebel—I’m against this terrorism, I’m against these bad people. So how can I be against them? My way is just to do more shiny colors, more beautiful colors, more beautiful love stories in my art,” he says, his voice rising. “Because if I am disappointed because of what they do, I will do nothing. I’ll just sit down and be sad, and no. No. I’m human, I have to live.”

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Tina Aldebashi paints abstract works with resin in the garage studio of her Montrose home. An immigrant from Yemen, Aldebashi also works at the front desk of the Tellepsen YMCA.

Tina Aldebashi

Tina Aldebashi was in high school in Sana’a, Yemen, in 2004, when she first realized she could really be an artist. She entered a sketching competition featuring students from high schools across the city, with Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in attendance.

Sitting among the other artists, she drew the traditional buildings of Old Sana’a, using Wite-Out to accent the facades. “The traditional houses in Old Sana’a have white rings on top, and at every floor, to distinguish how many floors a building would have,” she says. “In order to emphasize that whiteness on a white paper, I needed something that was even whiter.”

The president was impressed, and declared Aldebashi the winner. A photo of the pair ran in the local newspaper. “When I won that one, I thought, oh my god, this is going to be my breakthrough, right? But guess what? No. You’re a female, you’re not going to get a thing. The president just gave me a writing from the Quran, in a big frame—a very beautiful, very expensive frame—and that was my gift. And I’m like, I don’t want that! He just shook my hand and took a picture and that’s it.” What she wanted, but didn’t receive, was more opportunity as an artist.

Aldebashi was born in Yemen but raised primarily in Saudi Arabia, where her parents worked in a hospital. She spent a lot of time on the hospital’s campus, meeting and interacting with people from all over the world. When her family moved back to Sana’a, 14-year-old Aldebashi felt stifled. Her parents sent her to college in Yemen, although she’d wanted to go somewhere else; she rebelled by wearing black nail polish and goth clothing. Several months after she graduated, in 2010, the Arab Spring reached fever pitch.

Amid the turmoil, Aldebashi left Yemen for Ethiopia with her siblings and found work as a translator at the Kuwaiti Embassy. There, she met her husband, an Ethiopian-born American citizen, and once they married, she moved with him to Houston and became a permanent resident. As a lead engineer for Exxon, he travels back and forth to Ethiopia for long stretches of time; Aldebashi, now 28, works as a front desk clerk at downtown's Tellepsen YMCA.

In Houston, she’s found a community of artists through a studio class in Montrose. Last March, the diverse, all-female group held their own show, donating half the proceeds—$4,500—to the YMCA’s annual fundraising campaign. Meanwhile, Aldebashi has continued to develop as an artist. Recently, she stumbled on a surprise material that’s expanded her horizons and dramatically influenced her work: resin, which she uses to create dreamy, almost glasslike pieces, whose colors spread across her canvases.

“I wasn’t aware of anything called resin until my teacher showed me a painting of his. He didn’t tell me the exact details about it, but I was fascinated by the fact that it was liquid and I could manipulate it any way I want,” she says. “It’s not glass, it’s not plastic, it’s so much better than all of that. I was just like, you know what? I need to experiment with this thing.

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When he arrived in Houston, Thamir Al-Sheikh, a refugee from Iraq, had abdominal surgery that greatly improved his quality of life. Now, he wakes in the middle of the night to paint while the rest of his family sleeps in his Katy home.

Thamir Al-Sheikh

Thamir Al-Sheikh was born in 1951 to an artistic family. His father, a traditional Arabic calligrapher, taught him that ancient art, and he trained as an artist in Baghdad. In 2003, at the start of the Iraq War, Al-Sheikh was still living in the city with his wife, three sons and three daughters, designing art for school textbooks for the country’s Ministry of Education.

Like so many Iraqis, Al-Sheikh had been tortured by Saddam Hussein’s regime. In 1997, he says, his ribs were broken, his teeth pulled, his “insides scrambled.” Nevertheless, the family was prosperous—too prosperous. Wealth made them a target. As the country descended into chaos, Al-Sheikh’s son was kidnapped.

“I went to the police and they did nothing for me, so I had to speak to the mob directly. My child would have been killed if I had to wait for the authorities to take an action,” Al-Sheikh says, referring to the kidnappers who took advantage of the disorder to loot property and commit crimes as “the mob.” “It cost me my car and a lot of gold and money; they sent him back to me completely naked.”

Then, in 2006, Al-Sheikh was threatened with another kidnapping of another son, if he and his family didn’t leave his house—and everything in it—immediately. “We were in a very good financial standing within the country, and we had a very big house worth a lot, so those mobs were attacking us for that reason,” he says. The threat came with a bullet and 250 dinars, Iraqi currency worth less than a quarter. “It has a symbolic meaning, the fact that they sent the 250 bill—it’s saying, basically, ‘Your child is dead. So you can start your prayers now if you don’t leave. Consider it done.’”

The Al-Sheikhs fled north, sleeping in an abandoned barn. They moved frequently after that, to Mosul, another Iraqi city, and briefly back to Baghdad, before being accepted as refugees into Jordan and settling in the city of Amman. By that time, Al-Sheikh’s health had deteriorated, the result of injuries he sustained during his torture, which were too serious to be treated in Jordan. The family arrived to Houston in 2012, where he underwent abdominal surgery for a major hernia at St. Joseph Medical Center downtown.

Today Al-Sheikh’s health is drastically improved. And shortly after the surgery, he picked up his paintbrush once again. He excels at various styles, from hyper-realistic portraits to more colorful abstract works, which are his favorite. He goes to bed very early in the Katy home he shares with his family, including two sons and a daughter-in-law, and wakes up at 1 or 2 a.m. to paint in his garage until the sun rises.

“My previous experiences in life, and where I am now, show up in my paintings. It’s a fusion of the multidimensional world that I’ve witnessed, what I’ve seen, what I’ve felt and what’s been displayed in the media about us,” he says. “Sometimes I have this very strong urge to just leave everything and go and start painting.”

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Tekie Gebremichael escaped his home country of Eritrea and spent eight years in an Ethiopian refugee camp before making his home in Houston, where he paints when not on duty as a taxi driver.

Tekie Gebremichael

It was under unusual circumstances that Tekie Gebremichael realized his lifetime dream of becoming a painter. At 27, in 2005, he had settled in a refugee camp after braving a dangerous journey from Eritrea to Ethiopia, much of it on foot and under threat of incarceration (or worse). He and the roughly 6,000 other Eritrean refugees in the camp weren’t allowed to work, and so his family back home would send him money to buy art supplies on sanctioned outings outside the camp. “In the refugee camp, I could take a chance because we didn’t have an opportunity to work, so I started to paint,” he says.

Gebremichael, 38, was born in Asmara, Eritrea. At 18, he was drafted into the country’s military, becoming a medic on the ground in the border conflict with Ethiopia. Like all male Eritrean citizens, he was required to serve for an indefinite period, a system that’s drawn international criticism since its introduction, in 1998: Soldiers have to be dismissed from duty in order to leave, something that takes place only at the whim of a superior.

As the years passed, Gebremichael became more and more concerned that he wouldn’t be able to leave his dangerous post on the front lines. After eight years, he decided to escape, risking prison or death. “I was in it for eight years, so that was really hard, my entire life was really hard. We couldn’t get an opportunity to go to school, and it’s very dangerous—there’s almost no way you can survive,” he says.

Life in the refugee camp was better—he was supplied necessities, and he spent his days painting, even showcasing his work in an exhibit in Ethiopia. After five years in the camp, he was cleared for resettlement in the United States. His first stop was Las Vegas, where his sister lives, followed by two years in Atlanta, where he struggled to find work. Here in Houston, Gebremichael drives a taxi to pay the bills, and is taking cybersecurity classes at Texas State Technical College. Last August, he says, beaming with pride, he became a U.S. citizen.

Several symbols recur in his impressionistic artworks, done in acrylic and latex. Umbrellas and rain feature often, representing the protection and security he’s sought in his life. He also paints a lot of boats, which stand in for the long journeys he’s made, both physical and emotional. “I have something inside which I want to paint—some ideas, some feelings inside,” he says, “so I try to explain my idea or my thought inside my heart.”

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Juan Carlos Fuentes Ferrin draws on his upbringing in Havana in his playful, surreal paintings. “In Cuba, everything can happen,” he says.

Juan Carlos Fuentes Ferrin

Juan Carlos Fuentes Ferrin, 53, wakes up early, at 5 a.m. or so each morning, and begins the day at his easel. His paintings have a whimsical, sometimes surreal quality to them—women with big hats and poufy dresses, cabinets full of curiosities. He has many influences, including his favorite artist, Francisco Goya, but his primary inspiration is Cuba, his homeland.

“In Cuba, everything can happen,” Ferrin says. “You can see a guy ride a bicycle with a toilet on the back, you’ll see a pig on a leash.”

Ferrin has always wanted to be an artist like his father, who drew historical comics while raising his family in Havana. “He was a really knowledgeable guy. He was the guy that I wanted to be like,” he says. But Ferrin’s dad passed away when he was 12 years old, and he didn’t get to learn as much from him as he would’ve liked.

“There were many questions throughout my life that I can’t get easy answers to, through him, right now,” he says. “I have to learn on the way. After my father passed away, my mother wanted me to be a lawyer, a doctor, something like that. I started engineering in the university, but I quit. It’s not for me. My mother almost killed me, but I was 18 years old, and I said ‘no more.’”

In 1998, Ferrin won the visa lottery and entered the United States as an immigrant with his then-wife and young daughter. They settled in Philadelphia, where he became a social worker, all the while continuing to paint. He moved to Houston in 2007, landing a job as an immigration caseworker at YMCA International, helping other Cubans get settled here.

Today Ferrin has pieced together a living as a professional artist. He’s a regular at Houston’s Bayou City Arts Festival and, when he’s not painting, hosts interested buyers at his home and studio in Katy. He’s proud to have made a career out of his artwork. “I started to scratch and draw when I was little,” he says, “and knew there and then, that’s what I want to do.”

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Mohammad Baro, a Syrian refugee, is a cook at his son’s Katy restaurant, where the walls are decorated with his realistic, emotional portraits of his country’s people.

Mohammad Baro

Mohammad Baro clasps his hands over his belly as he sits at a table at Ya Mal Al-Sham, his son’s Katy restaurant, where he spends his days behind the grill. The 56-year-old looks at home here—the walls are decorated with his murals, and his framed paintings hang everywhere. Today he’s brought out even more paintings from the backroom to show a visitor, scattering them around the restaurant, which serves Syrian and Iraqi food and is not yet open for the day.

In 1966, when Baro was a boy in Idlib, Syria, his father, the head of a union and a socialist, was exiled from the country after a military coup unseated Amin Al-Hafiz, the president he’d supported. The family took refuge in Lebanon, and there, Baro began painting scenes from his memory. “The artistic side of me started to come out,” he says, “because I wanted to remember the streets of my home and I wanted to emphasize that and put it on paper.”

When his father’s safety was threatened a second time, the family moved to Iraq, where Baro studied at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad, honing his realistic trompe l’oeil style. He began supporting his family by selling his work in galleries and at street bazaars. Then, in 2003, Baghdad fell.

Baro’s father was one of many refugees who tried to return to Syria, but he was arrested at the border and imprisoned. He spent three months in prison, and died shortly after.

Baro and his family fled to Jordan, where he continued to paint his increasingly painful memories. “Every painting speaks of certain tragedy that I’ve been through or I’ve seen,” he says. “It’s a group of feelings, very painful, tragic feelings that I have, and I’m trying to release each one of them individually into my paintings.”

One particularly striking portrait shows a man clutching bags of rice and other supplies—labeled UNICEF and WFP—with a pained look on his face. “This is what the Arab citizen has become, just a carrier for tragedies,” Baro says softly.

Baro and his family came to the United States as refugees in 2010; YMCA International helped resettle them in Houston. After six years, he feels more at home here than he did in his hometown, or any other place he’s lived. When he’s not cooking in his son’s restaurant, he’s pouring his heart into lifelike portraits of Arab people and their hardships.

“I’m very sorry that I can’t show you joy in any of my paintings, because I have family back home in Syria, and they’re in a war zone, so I can’t really convey any happy messages. I can’t paint landscapes or flying birds, because that’s not really what’s in my mind,” he says. “Me and the paintings, we have conversations. And sometimes it feels like I’m telling a story to my canvas, and I’m crying while I’m painting. But I feel such relief after I’m finished with each one.”

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