UN World Food Programme

Art in Exile: Iraqi Paintings Find Refuge in Tunisia

Mohammed Abdul Kareem, an Iraqi painter from Najaf, helped organize an art exhibit at the Shousha refugee camp in southern Tunisia where he has been living in a tent with his family of six for eight months. (Copyright: WFP/Julia Stewart)

Iraqi painter and arts professor Mohammed Abdul Kareem recently showed his work at an exhibition in Shousha camp in southern Tunisia where more than 3,600 people from over 30 countries await resettlement. The camp had received over this year tens of thousands of migrant workers, and sometimes professionals like Abdul Kareem, who fled the violence in Libya last February. The majority have returned home, those who remain are facing their second exile; like Abdul Kareem, they cannot go back to their countries.

Ras Ajdir, TUNISIA -- Abdul Kareem was only mildly surprised to find himself and his six children living in a refugee camp on a stark coastal plain in southern Tunisia. “I didn’t expect it,” said Mohammed. “But it is not unusual for this to happen when there is such a leader.”

The Iraq artist and his professionally-trained children have been living in Shousha camp near the Tunisian-Libyan borders since April after they fled the violence in Libya. Among his children he counts two doctors, one pharmacist and one engineer.

Mohamed had been teaching Plastic Arts at a university in Libya for the past 13 years. He and his family had taken refuge so many years ago in Libya not by choice but necessity. “I was a popular artist in Baghdad back then,” he explains. “Artists and intellectuals were being targeted. When my close friend, also an artist, was killed, I decided to leave.” It was not only for his safety that he decided to leave, but the safety of his children too.

Mohammed was recently a featured artist at an exhibition the Danish Refugee Council organised in the camp. One of his sons, a medical doctor, contributed some powerful paintings too, one of which a Libya-themed painting depicting an armed horseman.

The UNHCR-run camp houses nearly more than 3,600 refugees from 36 different countries; the majority of them migrant workers and families who escaped the violence in Libya that followed protests last February.

WFP provides basic food commodities to the camp; wheat flour for baked bread, pasta, couscous, tomato paste and vegetable oil and food rations to Libyan refugees scattered throughout urban areas of southern Tunisia. And since early July, WFP has also been providing food assistance to more than 15,000 Tunisian workers throughout the country who abruptly returned home and lost their jobs in Libya.

Mohammed says he and his family are being resettled in Michigan, USA where some of his relatives live. All he wants in life at the moment is to “be in a free country and teach art”.