Yasmeen Alkordi was taken by her father to live for a time in Damascus, Syria so she could learn the language and culture of his native country. Now, Alkordi, an art student at Shepherd University, is raising funds for refugees fleeing the conflict there by selling pieces of her art at a downtown Charles Town coffee house.
In 2011, Syria erupted into conflict following the Arab Spring, then slowly degenerated into a drawn-out armed conflict that many commentators say either has already or may soon turn into a full-blown civil war.
At least 26,000 people have been killed in the conflict so far; a quarter-million have fled as refugees into neighboring countries; and 1.5 million have been internally displaced, according to the United Nations.
Alkordi, who last visited the country when she was 10, said it has been difficult to watch the conflict unfold on television, knowing that many of her friends and family live in an area that has been devastated by the conflict.
Alkordi lived in a lower-middle class neighborhood near the center of Damascus populated with shopkeepers, steelworkers and taxi and bus drivers.
“It was hard,” she said. “Everyone was lower-class at the time. You didn’t really see anyone who was wealthy. People tend to just be at the lower-middle class level. And then there is the very lower class, who just live in the streets.”
“They bombed right beside the house that I grew up in,” she said. “It is kind of like a stab in the heart. I am just glad that most of my family is alive. Some of them may not be because they lived closer to where the bombs fell, and I can’t get ahold of them right now.
“It’s hard to think about it because when I was over there it was a very different time. It is hard to think that now there are people killing each other in the streets. But that’s what’s going on there right now. It’s the place that I grew up with, that I know by heart, and I’m afraid that it will be lost once a war starts, if a war starts.”
Bystanders in the conflict have suffered greatly throughout the last year, with legions fleeing to refugee camps just outside the Syrian border in Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, among other countries.
Alkordi said the international community needs to step up efforts to aid these refugees, who often arrive at the camps with nothing other than the clothes on their backs.
In order to raise money to help the refugees, Alkordi is selling several artworks at Jumpin’ Java in downtown Charles Town, including several drawings, paintings and sculptures.
Alkordi says she began developing her artistic talent in middle school, and by high school she was entering art competitions. Her work reflects her divided origins, mixing intricate Arabic calligraphy with western styles of painting and drawing.
“I’m traveling between two different worlds. I’m in the middle. I like to mix opposites together, both with colors and with the clash between representational art and the calligraphy. It is kind of like how I pursue life, because I am from two completely different cultures,” said Alkordi, who also lived for a time in Oklahoma, where her mother is from.
And she says her art’s message also has a dual aspect, inviting western audiences to learn more about Syrian history and culture while also taking a harshly critical stance on the oppressive aspects of some Islamic societies – particularly on the oppression of women.
On the one hand, as a woman with Syrian heritage living in the post-9/11 United States, she has seen the rise of Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism.
“Especially around 9/11, people would call me a terrorist. I was like, ‘I had nothing to do with it.’ Not everyone who is Arab or Muslim is a terrorist. Not everyone who is Arab or Muslim is violent,” Alkordi said.
“It’s sad, because most people don’t even know where Syria is. It’s an important country, like all countries. A lot of important things came from Syria, like math,” she said, referring to the invention of algebra.
As an American woman who has seen first-hand the sometimes violent and degrading treatment of women in some Islamic nations, Alkordi’s art makes strides to raise awareness of the dire plight of women in the Middle East.
One piece, “The Bottles Project,” was recently accepted to an art competition in Maryland. It features a Koranic verse used to justify the subjugation of womenformed into the shape of a woman’s head and has been painted on top of a case full of bottles.
The piece was inspired by the plight of her aunt, who lives in Saudi Arabia, where women’s rights are severely curtailed. Her aunt was married off as the third wife of an older, abusive man at age 15, Alkordi said. After his death, she became the ward of her husband’s sons, who left her confined alone in a house for years. She was unable to leave because Saudi women are not allowed to be on the street unless accompanied by a male relative.
The bottles serve as a metaphor, Alkordi said, for her aunt’s confinement.
“The bottle contains and suppresses whatever is in it. And that is what happened to her. She was put into this house for years. No one was there except for her,” Alkordi said. “She cannot go out on the street herself unless she is accompanied by a legal guardian. She cannot uncover her face. She has to be covered completely from wrists to ankles. She is the basic equivalent of a dog in that culture.”