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Culture & Art

Kurdish artist in Switzerland paints the suffering in Syria and beyond

Omar painted ‘The Pietà of Syria’ after seeing a poignant photograph of a Syrian father carrying his dead son following the bombing of Homs by the Assad regime. Photo courtesy of artist.
Omar painted ‘The Pietà of Syria’ after seeing a poignant photograph of a Syrian father carrying his dead son following the bombing of Homs by the Assad regime. Photo courtesy of artist.

By Salwa Nakhoul Carmichael

BRUSSELS, Belgium - Delawer Omar, a Syrian Kurd exiled in Switzerland, paints to show the world what the Syrians in general and the Kurds in particular have suffered at the hands of the Bashar Assad regime since the start of the Syrian revolution.

Among his startling and haunting paintings are those of a father cradling his dead son, a boy with an eye patch, and a father clutching the only survivor in his family, a son.

“Sometimes an image is worth a thousand words,” the Damascus-born 28-year-old told Rudaw in a telephone interview from his home in Aigle, Switzerland.

Omar, who has 362,000 followers on Facebook and many others on Instagram and Twitter, finds his topics in the photographs and articles about the five-year civil war in Syria that he has been following on all social media from Switzerland.

 “My paintings are my journal,” he said. “Painting for me is my way to explain everything that I see and feel.”

The massacres perpetrated by the Assad regime against his people -- Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians and others -- touch him deeply and he tries to convey their pain and suffering to the international community, which he said, “did nothing to help the Syrians.”

But Omar also wants to leave a note of hope that a better Syria will emerge from all the destruction and death – which is why a dove appears in many of his paintings: “The blood of the youth that was shed will not go to waste. It will lead to freedom, dignity and peace.”

Omar believes that is what every nation deserves and what all Syrians deserve: a country where everyone is free and has the right to speak his language and the right to choose who governs him.

 “In Syria we had for the past 50 years one family governing us without any regard to the people, their wishes and their needs. The Assad family treated the country as if it is a farm, as if they are god and they do with the people as they wish,” he charged.

He added that the suffering of the Syrian people has been great but that of Syrian Kurds even greater. Omar remembers being told that in the 1960s 300,000 Kurds were stripped of Syrian nationality. He noted that Kurds were not allowed to speak their language, practice their cultural traditions and enjoy political freedom.

Omar wonders why Syria cannot be more like federal Switzerland, a country with 22 cantons and four official languages, where everyone lives in peace and dignity.

“We Kurds do not want to break away from Syria.We are not separatists. We want to have our Syrian nationality and our rights like everybody else but we want to be able to govern ourselves within a federal system,” he explained.

Omar believes that, unlike the Kurds of Iraq, the Syrian Kurds do not have the means to survive on their own.

He explained that he was inspired to paint his “The Pietà of Syria” after seeing a poignant photograph of a Syrian father carrying his dead son following the bombing of the city of Homs by the Assad regime.

In another painting called “Pain in My Homeland,” Omar depicts a Syrian father clutching his son, the only family member who survived from bombs that the Assad regime dropped on Aleppo.

But Omar also paints suffering beyond Syria.

“Farinaz the torch of Freedom” is about the death of Farinaz Khosrawani, the 26-year-old Iranian Kurd in Iranian Mahabad who last month reportedly jumped to her death from a hotel window to avoid being raped by an Iranian intelligence agent. There is a dove in the painting representing the hope that her death may lead to change.

In “Rest in Peace Farkhunda Malikzada,” Omar touched on the suffering of humanity in general and women in specific. His painting depicts the ultimate injustice when an Afghan woman is lynched by a mob in Kabul on March 19 this year, after a cleric falsely accused her of burning the Quran.

“The way she died affected me to my core,” said Omar, who recently married a Kurdish woman from Iran and appears older than his 29 years, evidence of a hard life.

In 1991, when he was five years old, his father was arrested in Syria and jailed for political reasons while working for a human rights organization in Damascus and serving in Kurdish political groups.

When he got out after five years he was stripped of his Syrian nationality and of all his civil and political rights.

“Every two weeks my father then had to report to the intelligence security and was sometimes kept there for a few days. So he was under a lot of pressure and he felt that the only solution was to leave Syria.”

Because his father could not obtain a passport, the only way to leave Syria was with human traffickers, who instead of taking him to Italy as agreed, took him and other Syrians to Cyprus in 1997.

But he managed there to obtain UN political refugee status.

A few months later, traffickers arranged for Omar’s mother, his brother and three sisters to leave Syria for Sweden,  but they ended up in Switzerland. Omar was left behind at his grandparents in Syria because he was used to staying with them, and the family could not afford to pay also for him to leave.

He stayed behind in Syria for a year and half waiting, until he got his political refugee papers from the UN in order to join his father with whom he stayed in Cyprus for three years.

Omar, who was separated from his mother for over four years, remembers when he started learning to paint from his father’s friend, a Kurdish artist in Cyprus. He used to draw women‘s faces.

“I guess being away from my mother at this young age affected me so much,“ he said.

After learning English and Greek at school in Cyprus, Omar and his father left the Mediterranean island at the end of 2000 for Switzerland to join the rest of the family and continue his schooling, in French and German.

He studied art in the public schools but not in university where he majored in political science. At 17 he took part in an exhibition in Lausanne organized by the Socialist youth group he was a member of.

Omar now works for the Swiss government where he teaches French and Swiss culture to other immigrants seeking to integrate into Swiss society while continuing to work on his art.

Omar refuses to join any art galleries for fear the management will impose on him the kind of paintings they want in order to boost sales.

“I want to stay free and paint the subjects I want with the colors I want,” he said. “I do not want my painting to become commercial and a trade because I put all my feelings in my paintings.”

He added: “They say money blinds a person so I am scared it will change my concepts and understanding of things.”

Omar, like thousands of artists, has given the right to an online company to print his paintings on things like mugs, pillow -cases, and shower curtains, but said he does not sell much and the company makes most of the profits.

He said that if Assad is toppled, he would return to visit his country, but probably not live there because it will take so long to establish stability.

“Even if the regime of Assad goes, Syria is like a house that needs a good cleaning up and this needs time, maybe dozens of years,” Omar said.


Herodotus | 1/6/2015
The Kurds want to have their own state,and they rightly do deserve it.
J.Dupont | 1/6/2015
What once was called Syria or Iraq was for the Kurds like a prison and inferno.Never back to those dark days.The ongoing war is about new states,new borders,to accomodate the different sects and ethnicities.The Kurdish state is a reality on the ground.Let's be confident.This war is the outcome of the sinister old order imposed in 1916 by Sykes-Picot against the will of the concerned populations.
Marcopolo | 1/6/2015
He is a true human being. He is a man who has identified the real problem ( Assad regime and his thugs) in syria. unlike willy/nilly supporters of the Fake PKK( who are also the willing slaves of ayatolahs) who blame everything on syrian opposition, this dignified kurdish artist is the voice of truth
Art as the voice of revolts | 3/6/2015
Critical artist must mirror the suffering of the masses and demand change of the conditions which has been the cause of so much suffering and hardships for many generations.we should show in critical art not just the suffering but also the important issue the will of the people against their suffering and show their defiance against the rulers.To show victims of wars as a hopeless suffering individuals can have a negative impact on the moral and the spirit of the masses to stand against their oppressors.

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