Mohamad Hafez: Reflecting War And Forced Migration Through Art

Jan 11, 2017

Immigrants in Connecticut come from many different backgrounds. They’re white-collar or blue-collar workers; they’re artists and students. We have an occasional series on Where We Live that highlights their stories.

Born in Syria, New Haven resident Mohamad Hafez creates sculpture portraits of Syrian cityscapes and street life. His work has evolved along with the devastating war in his home country. His latest creations symbolize the destruction of historical architecture and of humanity.

Where We Live host Lucy Nalpathanchil spoke with Hafez the same week the Syrian government defeated rebel forces in Aleppo.

Listen to the interview below:

Interview highlights:

On leaving Damascus for Saudi Arabia as an infant

My family faced forced migration three times in their history. My father is a physician that lived and worked for 22 years in Germany, [and] decided to come back to Syria and rebuild his life and give back to the country. But that was early '80s, where the turmoil of some problems there was evident, and life was very difficult.

There were small clashes in a northern city called Hama that made its way to Damascus, and one day clashes were so intensified that there was a bombing in my older sibling’s school. And that’s when he decided that OK, this was a bad idea moving back, and whatever it takes, I need to go find another future. So they moved to Saudi Arabia.

On growing up in Saudi Arabia

It was good in the sense that we were surrounded and contained in a campus for doctors. I really did not experience the local community much.

The negative part is you always feel as a foreigner that doesn’t belong there.

On returning to Damascus as a teenager

It was electrifying. It was the first time ever that I resonated with a place, that I felt that I belonged to this land, and this is the culture that I come from.

It explained so many questions that I had about myself, and my family, and where I come from. Every day was a very unique experience… my peers were playing video games and soccer.

I was the kid that would walk for hours the streets of Old Damascus, studying the architectural details, the narrow doorways, the layers of paint on the walls that have been chipped off to expose something that maybe was painted 100 years ago. And I would sit in the corner and sketch.

I no longer felt as a foreigner. I felt that I belonged for the first time.

On coming to the U.S. post 9/11

You would think for a middle-class family like us, with two siblings that have been educated in the United States -- numerous visits pre- 9/11 here, we spent a lot of vacations here -- that my visit to the United States to obtain my own education would be a piece of cake, and my visa would be very easy.

Well, as it turns out, it took a year and half to issue me clearance and to approve my student visa. And during that year and a half, it was very difficult for me, waiting and trying to decide what I would do with my life with no answer.

It even got more complicated when I arrived in the United States only to discover that my visa was valid for a single entry only -- which was very common for Middle Eastern students at the time, which meant you would risk everything if you ever think about going back home to visit.

And that resulted in me staying here eight years without the ability to visit home.

On turning to modeling to cope with homesickness

Just out of nostalgia, I put these wood scraps together, and a few hours later, I looked at what I’ve created, and it turns out that I’ve created… a model of a façade that belongs to Old Damascus streets.

That’s when I discovered that OK, if I can’t go home, I can recreate home in miniature models. And that process in itself was very therapeutic.

On the evolution of his art

My work mirrors my state of mind and thought inside me. Most of my pieces are not planned or designed.

It is what I feel, put into model form... so consequently, the earlier work[s] reflect a moment of peace and tranquility in the country and nostalgic feelings in me.

Later works during the war reflect a turmoil and a sheer force inside me of witnessing my country deteriorating into a vicious civil war. The most recent works reflect even more personal pain of forced migration, including my own family’s forced migration, and the emotional baggage that we carry.

On speaking on behalf of current Syrian migrants and refugees

Those that had the means have left four years ago, and perhaps my parents were among those people. It does not make us any better than the people that have left now. It does not make those people any lesser than we are.

It gives me a responsibility to speak on their behalf while I have the platform in the West world, in this global world that we all are citizens of. It is a responsibility that I take really dear to me in speaking up and telling the pain, in order to humanize the conflict.

You don’t ride the seas in a little refugee float in the middle of the night unless the sea becomes much more safer than the ground.

[My art] is a window into the heart and feeling of a normal human being, just like you, with a family and dreams and aspirations just like you. I am the voice of Syrian refugees, Muslim-Americans, migrants, forced migrants. I am one of these voices.

If you have fear against us, or unsettling thoughts, come meet us. Come meet me; come look at my work. Perhaps we can establish a common denominator, a common humanity amongst all of us.