Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo October 3, 2022

I Am Not Your Refugee: Art Here

Illustration of a girl holding a small wooden house, inside of which is a flame. Text reads, 'not your refugee.'

Podcast series created in collaboration with journalists, artists and activists with direct lived...

author #1 image author #2 image
Multiple Authors

Haya Halaw. Image by openDemocracy. Jordan, 2022.

A closer look at art and migration from ArtHereIstanbul, a gallery and community space

Art and migration in Türkiye, Jordan and Ireland.

Arthereistanbul is a community space, an art centre and a place where artists can create in peace. Founder Omar Berakdar and artist and curator Sherin Zeraaty talk to Bairbre Flood.

In Jordan, Syrian illustrator and painter Haya Halaw is having her first solo exhibition show in Jacaranda Gallery in Amman.

And finally in Cork, Ireland, meet artist Hina Khan, whose exhibition ‘No Seradan’ (‘No Borders’) draws on her family history of forced migration from Pakistan and her own deeply personal ideas around borders and nationalism.

Presented by Mahmoud Hassino and produced by Bairbre Flood.

Theme music by Omar Alkilani. Artwork by Haya Halaw.

With thanks to the Pulitzer Center for funding support.

As a nonprofit journalism organization, we depend on your support to fund more than 170 reporting projects every year on critical global and local issues. Donate any amount today to become a Pulitzer Center Champion and receive exclusive benefits!


Mahmoud Hassino: ‘I Am Not Your Refugee’ a podcast created by myself and Bairbre Flood in collaboration with some of the refugee community organisers, activists and artists working to challenge stereotypes around migration. With thanks to the Pulitzer Center for funding support.

Hi and welcome back to this week's episode focusing on art and migration. Here we are in Istanbul, an art gallery, a community space and a place where artists can create in peace. Bairbre Flood is visiting ArtHereIstanbul.

Bairbre Flood: Is there any place a bit quieter?

Omar Berakdar: Quieter

Bairbre Flood: Even…

Omar Berakdar: We're looking for somewhere quiet.

Bairbre Flood: Okay. For 10 minutes, you can stay if you want.

Musician: No, it's okay. It's okay. I’ll have a cigarette.

Bairbre Flood: Are you sure?

Omar Berakdar: Time for break!

Bairbre Flood: Oh, cool. A recording studio.

Omar Berakdar: Yeah, kind of {laughter}

Omar Berakdar: I am Omar Berakdar. I'm a Syrian artist, photographer, new media artist, founder of ArtHereIstanbul. This place, obviously in Istanbul, founded in 2014, originally by Syrian artists but not the aim only Syrian artists. We say is like the opportunity to help all artists who are, I would say, displaced or from conflict. So any artists who finding difficulties in finding place to work, place to network, and the people who comes here. Everybody who wants to interact with each other for an art project.

So let's say we don't declare the priority for helping say artists from conflict zone, but it's more kind of place where everybody can meet. We have some phones and some projects where we help directly the artists who are displaced or having difficulty continuing their art. They say project and at the same time, we have international art residency where everybody, any let's say people interested in the art of this region, or people who have projects related to our specialities, what we do the most.

So in a way, this environment when say, artists from Turkey, let's say from Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, England, Colombia, the United States, when they all meet, they meet for an art project. But the outcome is more, kind of people understand each other culture, then their type of work and they kind of, they say we hope that the influence in what they're going to do in the future is more understanding, the more get into the sense of other cultures. So in a way, this kind of place will melt those boundaries. And as we say, it's like space without borders.

It's like people can really meet and have a more relaxing work environment. As you notice the place is cosy, people can feel comfortable. We have a very wide network so anybody who wants to work in any topic, we can in a way guide him or put him into the right people you know. It is like the first thing people who move from one place or forced to move to one place to another for the art practice is to access the resources in the public places to show. He is very much into new media, sound installation, music.

We do a lot of concerts and we focus with a concert, we do to mix different practices. So there will be a musician from Turkey, one from Iran, accompanied by our player from Syria or Kanoon player from Greece. And this is the charm of it! We we had here music from Balkan, from the United States, from the UK, from all over from Colombia, this is one of the aims we are trying to achieve.

Bairbre Flood: And do you get much interest from the Turkish public?

Omar Berakdar: Of course we have. We exist in Istanbul so lot of artists from Turkey are interested. Of course, the majority of our public is from Turkey, let's say 75% from Turkey and the rest are mixed international in a way. And as I explained at the beginning, we try to help any artists who have difficulties and we know that also artists from Turkey are having lots of difficulties. So we do exhibitions specifically for artists from Turkey, for groups from Turkey. We focus on the project and we like this idea that we contribute in this community here in supporting also the art in the place here.

We just had the space at the beginning, there was nothing in it. Then we started in a way to create this kind of the exhibitions. We built the dark room. Then we had the new media lab, electronics, 3D printing. So in a way we try to focus on all type of art. For classic painting, they have a kind of small workshop where they can work with wood. They can even make their own frame to stretch the canvas on it. So they can do it here. They can paint here. We provided storing place for them, for the artwork in the exhibit place.

We notice that there's a lot of places here — art studios — but they're never opened to public. You see from outside, you're curious but you can't see. Here, we say we open the door. We offered at the beginning café so you can see it, bring your laptop and work while we are working at the same time. And this is like a specific type of communication where we always interact with the people. They don't come and have coffee and leave in peace. We don't let them, we keep talking to them.


So in a way, this is developed that the more we had artists or people working with us, the more they brought their own practice with them. For example since one of our team is from Iran, a couple and a musician, so in a way they brought this kind of jam session every two weeks. Because of their kind of interest in music we build this music room here where we're sitting in.

One of our team is German artists who work in sound and light and he's in between. He always here, now he's in Berlin. So in a way, when I also go to Berlin I work in his studio, this kind of connection. Also abroad, what's in Germany, the artists in sound. You see, each artist brings what he's got.

I work in the darkroom. So I introduced this for lot of people who are still interested in the analogue photography which is now going back and very fashionable. So the black and white, the colour, the ambience of black and white photographs. So it's like, as we say, like just an open space. Our aim is to keep the space open, to have tolerance as much as we can and work together to keep having some funds to keep the place going in open.

Bairbre Flood: Really fantastic, like you've built a whole community.

Omar Berakdar: In a way — if you see on the entrance, we say we are art centre, art residency, an art community.

Bairbre Flood: Like how important is it to have places that are run by refugees or people of refugee backgrounds?

Omar Berakdar: I don't support the idea of refugee artist because this brings people who coming to see refugees. So in a way we always do not declare that. People who know us know it. But like, in a normal day, people passing or checking for us, they will come to see art.

Because for me when you give the artists this description 'he's a refugee artist', it takes something from him. It can move at one point to charity, in a way.

I highly appreciate the motive of the people they want to support. But at some times, for the people who keep being cornered in the refugee place, it's hard for them. So they prefer not to be seen as refugee artists. You see the artwork, you talk to them, then you understand the refugee or from that place, or this place. This the process, we like it to do. You see the practice, maybe you see something different. And they say, Oh, why this is like, oh yes this is because this is from culture, I'm coming from this location. Then you understand. Then it's like, we try to escape this, as we say, ‘the cage of refugee’ for artists.

Sherin Zeraaty: My name is Sherin Zeraaty and I'm one of the members in ArtHereIstanbul. The latest project that is exhibiting right now, it's virtual creation residency, it's called 'Reshape'. It happened in collaboration with four partners, one in Mozambique, one in Switzerland, and one in Iran, and one in Turkey. There were eight artists who participated. And they collaborated online, with each other two by two, and the result is what you can see now. One of the artists is actually a musician. She's an American who lives in Berlin, and two other performers. Another one is also a musician, Basak Yavuz, here in Istanbul, she's one of the most famous jazz singers here. So I hope you like the work.

Baibre Flood: I'm sure I will. I look forward to listen to it.

Sherin Zeraaty: This is the second edition of this residency, and it started during the pandemic. And of course, we couldn't have a physical residency. So they thought of this virtual version of it. And it's interdisciplinary. So it's quite interesting to see how mediums can change and collaborate together. So we had like a dancer, for example, working with the industrial designer, you know. It's very different mediums, but it seemed to be working out.

Baibre Flood: It's amazing. The whole place got a really nice vibe. It's gonna be hard to get that across on the radio. And how relaxed it is, like when you come in the fire's lit, there's tea on the boil.

Sherin Zeraaty: Yeah. Everybody feels at home here. That's our goal to make anyone who just comes in to feel part of the space and can find a project or something to do here. I think the members who work here, this is our feeling, that there is no difference between the art practices, if with nationality you come from, age, anything. So because we all feel this way. Also, the atmosphere itself gives this vibe to anyone who enters and so they feel safe to work here and exhibit and do whatever kind of project they feel like.

Baibre Flood: Why do you think it's important to have, you know, people from all different nationalities working together? Why is that so important, especially now?

Sherin Zeraaty: I mean, I think it's always been important because we are all trying to be artists, or we are already artists. And art should be our language and not the nationality to make a difference between us. So to have a space that nobody cares where you're from, and you can work with anyone. And actually, because we have like residencies here like physical residencies, we host a lot of exhibitions and concerts that are from all over the world. So people get to also physically meet a lot of people from other nationalities and well, if they know something, they can teach this person and also vice versa. Like we say, here, for example, we are four, five members, but in reality we are so many more. But a lot of them just pass through and work for like six months here and then go on. So if we grow as a community also.

Baibre Flood: That's good. Yeah, because if someone is, it kind of feels like a very transitory place for some people.

Sherin Zeraaty: Exactly. Geographically, it's yeah, it works that way very well. And also Istanbul is, if we think about it, for example, a lot of countries in Middle East are not so free to go to Europe easily. But Istanbul is a place that they can come. And it's kind of feels the same for Europeans for different reasons. And when they come here, so this is like the point that they can meet and work together.

Bairbre Flood: What's your favourite thing about this whole place? Or what aspect of it?

Sherin Zeraaty: I started here as an intern. I was a student in Germany, and I came here and started as an intern. And I was looking for, like...What am I supposed to do? What is my job here? Like, for example, Omar, as the founder of the space would never tell me like 'Sherin this is your job'. So the space is open for you to find your own project. And I think this is something unique in an art space. And usually, this kind of mentality means that the space will fail. But the space has been working since 2014, with the same mentality and it works.

Yeah, and you have more opportunities to find things that you can do as a job that maybe you would never thought beforehand. You could do this. And when you come to space that there's like, so many things needed to be taken care of, and you have the choice to choose. I think it's very free.

Mahmoud Hassino: From Istanbul to Amman, Jordan — Bairbre meets illustrator and painter, Haya Halaw who’s having her first solo exhibition show in Jacaranda Gallery in Amman.

Haya Halaw: My name is Haya Halaw, I am a Syrian illustrator based in Amman. We are at Jacaranda Gallery at Rainbow Street at my solo exhibition. It's titled 'Of Home and Land'.

I didn't know if I really love or hate my country, after I experienced all of these events, and they were very scarring and scary. And I looked at everyone around me and how they changed after this horrible experience, or let's not call it experience, after the war. So it's like more of a human journey of everyone. Everyone's journey after this horrible thing that happened.

Bairbre Flood: Because I think sometimes people think that experiences like that, like war, and that they can make people stronger and community stronger. But it's actually the opposite.

Haya Halaw: Yeah, one of many of the discussions I have with people that came from Syria after all of this, like we are, we are all ready to trade this scarring event for being strong. Like we don't want to be stronger. Like, I don't want to be strong. I don't want to live this. I don't. And I always say like, my art is a healing journey for me because no therapy was enough for me. Like seeing everyone devastated, losing everything. It was very devastating and art was my own therapy. But I think I will never be able to get over it no matter how much I work, no matter how much I produce. I became like a broken record with my, with my work. And I'm afraid I'm repeating myself, but at the same time, it's my outlet. And and sometimes I want to trade it. Like I don't want to be an artist. I don't want to live all of this trauma, you know? Yeah.

Bairbre Flood: That painting, ‘Borders’, was one that really stood out. Can you describe it a little bit for the listeners.

Haya Halaw: So it's, it's a man surrounded by a very thin, thin thread. No matter how close you are to moving forward or to move to another place, there's like, just a small little thread that stopping you from all of this. It could be, I don't know your passport as a Syrian, your passport, or your own lack of courage.

Bairbre Flood: You know, I love... The people as well look like half animal, half human. Yeah, that's intentional obviously.

Haya Halaw: Yes, yes. There's one that's called 'Fetch.' It's like a human dog. It's about how our government use these human dogs to do the job for them. It's almost like an obeying dog.

Bairbre Flood: I mean, some of them are more obvious like the one this one, 'Sacrifice'. Yeah,

Haya Halaw: Yeah. The Sacrifice is literally a man, like sacrificing his body to the land. He almost became a tree. And you can see like, a dead look behind his eyes. I mean, like, I wish, I wish Syrians go to a group therapy. Like we're assigned to a group therapy session every week to talk about everything because it's, it's more than losing a house or losing a street or someone. It's like a long process of devastating events, one after one. Like it changes your whole psyche, your whole being, that you're not who you are anymore.

The whole exhibition was about my mental health journey, because I came out of Syria not aware that I was having panic attacks. I didn't know what panic attacks were really. And I used to go for long, long walks in nature. Like if I found a couple of trees in a street, I go, and I enjoyed, and I take photos. And this is how I produced all of this, I found comfort in nature and the little details of nature. And it reminded me of my own village in Syria, and I found it very comforting.

Bairbre Flood: What's your favourite painting? Or what are you most proud of?

Haya Halaw: I think its 'Roots' because it's..It's very serene. Like I had a healthy thought of my country. Like, it reminded me of the good times really, that unfortunately don't exist anymore there. So it's a happy memory for me.

Bairbre Flood: That is almost like she's in a pool, which is in the ground, which is like in water.

Haya Halaw: Exactly. Yeah. Many people told me that. It's a kind of a feminist piece, because it's almost like she's showing what's, what's appropriate for her to show. And she's hidden underwater, under the ground, the rest of her naked body. But a lot of people have that healthy relationship with their land. They're happy there, they're happy to be there. They're living in serenity.

Bairbre Flood: How did this exhibition happen?

Haya Halaw: I exhibited a couple of pieces here before and I came to Barbara, the owner of Jacaranda. She really believed in me, and I'm very, very lucky to have her. It's one of the galleries that I really trust their tastes and opinion and what they're doing really.

I work on children's books, mainly, yeah, very different from this. But I want to keep developing the idea maybe and come to a more... a very healthy and happy place with my art, that I'm no longer like processing everything that happened with my art. And maybe that would happen in the future after this. Yeah. Yeah.

Bairbre Flood: That's fantastic what you've done so far.

Haya Halaw: Thank you. Thank you.

Bairbre Flood: Will we get a cup of tea?

Haya Halaw: Yes {laughs}

Mahmoud Hassino: Finally we head to Cork, Ireland, and an artist called Hina Khan whose exhibition, ‘No Serhadain’ — ‘No Borders’ — draws on her family history of forced migration from Pakistan and her own deeply personal ideas around borders and nationalism.

Hina Khan: My name is Hina Khan, and I'm living in Ireland since 2015. And I'm based in Kinsale.

Bairbre Flood: Would you describe yourself as Irish Pakistani now. Or what way would you describe your identity?

Hina Khan: Yeah, I've been living in here in seven years, and I feel like Ireland is second home for me and I am feel like Irish Pakistani, Pakistani Irish. I am working on the topic of migration and I'm really connecting this migration toward my grandparents migration when India and Pakistan being made. So I'm really interested in like how people form the borders and how they like, how they divide the humanity because they are putting the people into the different boxes. And then they are very rigid and very strict. Like they really want to care about their nationalities.

It's not an easy like, but I really try to give a shape of a map which is...There is no border, there is water, there is earth, there is mountains, there is different visual vocabulary, which is symbolises with the Earth, but there is no borders.

I just create a map of the world. And in that map of the world, it's really humongous. It's 15 feet longer. It almost, yeah, it almost take over all the wall of the gallery. I'm inspired by the work of Anselm Kiefer because his sizes really inspired me. And in my new exhibition, the work I prepared is very humongous. It's not very small. But now I experimenting with the size. I'm really a big fan of Michelangelo and Sardi Khan from Asia. So like these people are, these people's work when I saw their humongous pieces, I really don't...I really want to express my ideologies with symbolism in that scale. So that is my, my thing.

Bairbre Flood: I hope someone gives you a church ceilings, to experiment on. That would be pretty cool.


It's really interesting. I like your work, it's beautiful. And I love that. There was one you did, it was 'Roots'.

Hina Khan: Roots are symbolically, it is all about India and Pakistan border. They just divided like we draw on the paper the lines, I can draw the lines in between. And that's how it's a big mess. And it is a big, my biggest migration, I think at that time. It's 73 years are gone, but it's not acceptable. Still, people are really feeling heart wrenching, and they don't make...Like some people are still crying. I interview a lot of people who are in their late 70s or 80s. I am the next generation my grandparents were migrated. But still like when I go through with the history, with the books of Demanto and different writers like Intaha Hussein and these are the writers who write about all the literature about partition. And when I go through it, it's not going somewhere — it's alive. Because it's a 15 million people displacement at that time. And currently, now I'm towards the situation of the people. Like a few months ago, like Ukrainian are really, they are enjoying their lives. They don't feel like they will be in the war zone, all of the sudden.

Bairbre Flood: What do you think about the term refugee artists? Like do you find that like reductive? Are you happy with that title? Or what do you think of the idea of labelling an artist as a refugee artist or as a migrant artist?

Hina Khan: Art is universal and artists trying to create the, like connectivity with the people. It's not about to put the people into the boundaries and categories. And I don't think we can divide, we can see the art piece through that perspective. We can see the art piece as an art piece. And that is very important. And I am, I was working like last three years, I was working with a Dublin Arts and Human Rights festival. So I'm really really strongly thinking like we cannot put people into the categories because we are all human. So it is about like that is all I'm working on. So I didn't categorise people into different categories. Like at the end, like after 100 years, people will see the artwork, they don't see the categories. I don't feel like to be putting different people into different categories. This is all art and artists are different. They are not like thinking in the same paradox, you know.

Bairbre Flood: Yeah, it's like, they don't call you know, Freddie Mercury, a refugee singer, you know or they don't call Einstein, a refugee scientist.

Hina Khan: Yeah, even, you know, a lot of artists migrate and like, you know, Picasso when he migrated there and his work, Leonora Carrington. When people like, who migrated, who explore a lot, and who brought, like, give a better picture, I think, through the exploration, but every story is different. Everybody have a different story and different people have different backgrounds. Mainly, my message is to create this kind of world to see the things with the better and broader picture, not from the small things.

Bairbre Flood: What do you think of the label refugee artist? So what do you think about that idea?

Haya Halaw: I think in the art community, there's a lot of people that look at it as someone claiming that crisis, like we're trying, it's almost like, we're using this, this thing, to become more famous, to climb on the trend. But you can always see like, the genuine work. You can feel it, no matter how unaware of it you are, and the whole term of refugee, I think...I don't know, it breaks my heart like to think of, of just borders and, and how like almost we're, we're putting people in these little boxes. Like you're not allowed to move from here to here because you live in there. And all of this idea of borders and even the wider understanding of a country, what a country is, what a home is, and why I'm not allowed to move there. Because, because of my nationality and my religion or whatever. I feel like we're all humans in this whole world. What's called the very...well, sometimes inhumane.

Mahmoud Hassino: Thanks to all the artists who talked to Bairbre Flood for this programme — Hina Khan in Cork, Ireland; Haya Halaw in Amman, Jordan; and Omar Berakdar and Sherin Zeraaty of ArtHereIstanbul.

We’ve put some links with this show so you can find out more about their art and see some of their paintings, illustrations and photography.

Thanks for listening and see you again next episode when we’ll be talking to members of the refugee LGBTQ community in Turkey. That’s next episode on ‘I Am Not Your Refugee’ with myself Mahmoud Hassino and producer Bairbre Flood.

With thanks to the Pulitzer Center for funding support. And thanks to Omar Alkilani who wrote and performed our theme music. Thanks for listening.



teal halftone illustration of a family carrying luggage and walking


Migration and Refugees

Migration and Refugees

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues