Iraqi, Syria Refugee Artists’ Work Now on Display at BU

by Ivy Keller   For just over two weeks, Bluffton University’s Sauder Visual Art Center will be hosting an exhibit of several dozen paintings done by refugees from Iraq and Syria. The exhibit was made possible by Common Humanity, an organization which, according to their website, “seeks to build understanding, respect and friendship with the Arab and Muslim world.”
   Mel Lehman, director of Common Humanity, brought the exhibit to Bluffton University this Wednesday. Lehman is no stranger to the conflict in the Middle East, having traveled there previously and written several articles about his travels. Lehman organized the exhibit, which is a collection of art created by professionally trained artists who are currently refugees from Iraq and Syria.
   Lehman’s organization Common Humanity is based in New York City. It’s a non-profit organization that aims to bridge the gap of understanding between the United States and the Middle East. As Lehman notes, one of the organization’s main goals is to foster empathy. Lehman says that “Our basic goal is to build some understanding between people in the East and people here in the West.” He notes that the media portrays an incomplete picture of people in the Middle East, leading to some misunderstandings regarding what life is really like for refugees from Iraq and Syria. As Lehman says, “What we’re trying to do is build some communication between people in the Middle East and people here in the West.”
   According to Lehman, when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, many people fled the country to avoid the sectarian violence. Lehman met many of the artists in the exhibit in Damascus around 2008, while they were fleeing from the violence in Baghdad. They weren’t the only ones. Lehman notes that, “Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, there was terrible sectarian violence which had been under the surface. When the structures in place began to fall, the underlying tensions erupted … so in that ensuing conflict, around the year 2006, 2007, something like a million people fled from Baghdad to Syria … to Damascus.”
   Around this time, Lehman traveled to Syria with a team of doctors who gave lectures in the area. He had been taking a group of people to visit the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office when he began to notice the art decorating it. Lehman inquired about the works’ origins and quickly found out that it had been created by refugee artists. He found out that there was an entire group of artists who were refugees in the area, and decided that their art should be shown in New York. “We took it to New York and had some very positive reception.” Now the collection has found its way to Bluffton University, where it will be staying until May 3. The art is for sale, and, according to Lehman, 80 percent of the proceeds will go to the artists. More information about the exhibit and Common Humanity can be found at their website, commonhumanity.org.