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Refugee’s art provides economic and emotional sustenance

9 June 20170 comments

Sketching portraits of shoppers and festival goers earned Syrian refugee Nouha Saigh just enough money to feed her family and pay the rent.

Nearly destitute in Lebanon having fled her home and prosperous life in war-ravaged Aleppo, Nouha relied on her talents as an artist to support herself and her five children.

“I would go out to the shops or to festival and I would sketch peoples portraits for a small amount of money. At that time it was all we had but it was enough to pay the rent and feed my children,” Nouha said.

Fifty-year-old Syrian refugee Nouha Saigh has been painting and drawing since she was four and she says art was an emotional as well as economic support for her in desperate times.

She studied art in her home town of Aleppo and found inspiration for her work in the ancient and beautiful streets of the historic city and among its cosmopolitan population.

But in 2012 Nouha was forced to flee her beloved city when war came. Aleppo was a centre of resistance to the brutal Assad regime and a deadly civil war erupted as government forces attacked the rebels.

As a result of the battles, many parts of the Old City of Aleppo World Heritage Site, including parts of the Great Mosque of Aleppo and other medieval buildings in the ancient city, were destroyed and ruined.

Nouha says Aleppo became a dangerous place where life was cheap and the beauty of the city’s architecture and history held no value for the combatants.

“Before the war we had a very active and happy life in Syria. I worked in a commercial bank and as an artist. I was very happy.  I went to work every day, cooked dinner for my family and spent hours drawing,” Nouha said.

“Our life was good before the war. We had many friends and we would go on picnics, go dancing and go to restaurants.

“But when the war came that all stopped. It became very dangerous,” she said.

Nouha and her family saw the conflict close up when a bomb exploded in their kitchen and another in their backyard.

“Many people were killed. It was a terrible time and very frightening,” she said.

The family fled and attempted to go to Turkey.

“When we were crossing the border into Turkey we were stopped by some militia who threatened to kill us. I thought we were all going to die,” she said.

Nouha, a devout Christian, prayed and when the driver of one of the militia’s trucks intervened the family was allowed to cross into Turkey.

“We didn’t know where we were going to go or where we would sleep,” she said.

They were given shelter in a church but could not get official recognition from Turkish authorities and eventually decided to go to Lebanon. The family arrived there with just $US50.

“We had no money and so I would go to the shopping areas or to festivals and sketch people’s portraits for a little bit of money,” Nouh said.

“It was just enough to pay for the rent and buy some food,” she said.

In July 2014 Nouha and her family were accepted for resettlement in Australia.

She says that art is her passion and is now both an important link back to her heritage in Syria and a way of celebrating the “sunshine” coming to live in Australia has provided her family.

“I love Australia because Australia has helped my family and I love Australia because of the beautiful sunshine and colourful landscapes you have here,” Nouha said.

“Also the people here are very kind and helpful,” she said.

Recently some of Nouha’s art was accepted into the Heartlands 2017 Art Project, an exhibition of works by refugee artists.

Her work reflects the dire situation in Syria and the suffering being endured by its people.

Nouha hopes to continue her career as an artist in Melbourne.

“My aim is to tell the world, through my art, about the suffering of the Syrian people and their hopes for peace,” she said.


Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist