Advocating for the Syrian refugee crisis through art and architecture

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Mohamed Hafez grew up in Saudi Arabia and went to school for architecture in the Midwestern US, but in 2003, the NSEERS program made it difficult for Hafez to return home. Hafez shared his personal journey on Wednesday night in an event titled “Unpacked: Exploring Refugee Stories through Art.” Photo provided by author

Mohamed Hafez never pictured himself as an artist until he was one. Hafez was born in Damascus, grew up in Saudi Arabia and went to school for architecture in America’s Midwest. After completing his education, Hafez wanted to return to Syria. However, in 2003, George W. Bush implemented the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System. NSEERS required that Muslim immigrants be interrogated and documented every time they left or returned to the U.S. This made it difficult for Hafez to return home, according to Hafez in his Zoom presentation, “Unpacked: Exploring Refugee Stories through Art,” on Wednesday night. 

“Out of homesickness one night I started collecting some materials that I had collected because [as] architecture students we build a lot of models so [we] end up with a lot of scrap materials,” Hafez said. “And I remember this was the very first piece I did, one night I started working on this piece and I found it very therapeutic, cathartic and healing. Of course, I was too young and naive to understand therapeutic art. I was connecting to home and it passed time. I worked on it for twelve hours straight because I really enjoyed it. So I started making more, so I started developing this interest in architecture and art.” 

At the start of his art career, Hafez only created his three-dimensional models of Damascus as a pastime while he worked at an architectural firm. His artwork is characterized by his experience growing up in Damascus. He described Damascus as having not only  beautiful architecture, but also a mosque next to a synagogue, next to a church and an art gallery with nude sculptures that contained thousands of years of history. 

“I was emotionally attached to this place that I was witnessing being blown out of existence in the Syrian world,” Hafez said. “I would come home from this busy day and I see images like this, seeing beautiful cities like Damascus, Aleppo being wiped out of existence …  we all saw in the Syrian war there isn’t any shortage of blood. The atrocities … were sort of broadcasted right in front of our eyes 24/7, but for me … I was witnessing the atrocities as an architect, not only a Syrian.” 

Mohamed Hafez developed his interest in architecture and art through his feelings of homesickness. As conflicts escalated, Hafez continued his work, expressing his frustration through his art. Photo provided by author

As the Syrian war escalated, Hafez expressed his frustration through his artwork. He added that from an artist’s and architect’s perspective, he understood how long it took to build those buildings. Through all the devastation, Hafez still tries to instill hope by embedding Quranic phrases in his artwork.  

“It just happened that as I was making artwork it reflected the personal life changes of me and my own family,” Hafez said. “My earlier works from 2003 reflect a very peaceful country, pristine architecture, but my work moves into the destruction pieces … when it moves to the refugee crisis. One of my family members became a refugee. So, I started to try to understand what it means to be a refugee, what it means to lie on the tiny floats across the ocean, knowing that there is a 50% chance that the boat is capsizing.” 

Hafez said the refugee crisis really hit close to home for him when his relative had to seek refuge in Sweden. As Hafez continued to create, he discovered a new medium — suitcases — and he became known as the baggage guy. Hafez said he realized that people carry both physical and emotional baggage, which inspired him to make suitcases his new medium. It was also a universal object that many people from countries all over the world, especially immigrants, can relate to. As he began to showcase this idea, Hafez said he was gifted suitcases from many different American immigrant families. 

“Art is very educational, art is a global medium that goes as far east … far west, far left [and] far right, without even speaking,” Hafez said. “If you introduce the artist as a Muslim, Syrian immigrant, a lot of people would close their ears to the message, but I decided to keep my mouth shut and make art that will speak on my behalf and my people’s behalf [to] show them the power of art and sharing loss, cultural loss, without really flashing photos of dead people, we’ve all [had] enough of that.” 

In Mohamed Hafez’s exhibition, “Unpacked: Refugee Baggage,” Hafez interviewed immigrant families and built pieces out of suitcases, illustrating what the families described their homes like. Photo provided by author

He developed his suitcase pieces into an exhibition titled, “Unpacked: Refugee Baggage.” To add to his exhibition, Hafez and his team also interviewed and recorded the stories of immigrant families so visitors could listen firsthand. He even created pieces based on what these immigrant families described their homes as having looked like.  

“As a young architect my career was starting to soar and grow at full speed, and you realize that there are thousands of architects out there that can build and design beautiful glass skyscrapers,” Hafez said.  “But how many of those architects are also Syrian, Muslim and Arab, brothers to refugees, immigrants, born and raised in the Middle East but educated in the Midwest, can speak both languages … relate to different worlds and build these cultural bridges during high tensions of xenophobia? There are only a handful of people that are alive today that are able to do such work and have the responsibility. It’s not a luxury, it’s an absolute responsibility.” 

He hopes to educate people about Middle Eastern culture, and he also recognizes  his art as a form of activism and a way to inspire others to use their voice to speak up in whatever way  they can.  

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