“My Creativity Was Paralyzed”—Baggage and the Bridge of Empathy

He was stuck. Fourteen years before President Donald Trump issued an executive order to block immigrants from 24 predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States for 90 days—and refugees from Syria indefinitely—President George W. Bush restricted visas for international students from Islamic states studying in America, using provisions afforded to him in the federal Immigration and Nationality Act.

But after an 18-month background check, a Syrian, Arab, Muslim student named Mohamad Hafez was issued a “single entry” visa to study architecture in the United States. For eight years after the restriction was put into place by President Bush, Mohamad could not travel back and forth to visit his family in Syria if he wanted to be able to return to his studies at Iowa State University. For eight years, Mohamad missed weddings and funerals, holidays and boisterous family dinners. The last time he was in the same room with his four siblings was in 2003. What had once felt like the opportunity of a lifetime became a prolonged punishment of sorts.

The ruler-straight highways, melancholy summer winds, and clear farming skies of central Iowa with its small-town commercial knobs comprised of Exxons and Subways made Mohamad sick for the Barada River and the 4,000-year-old architecture of Damascus. He missed the Roman city walls, the mud brick and wood houses, and the Great Omayyad Mosque. Before it was torn apart and laid to waste by the incessant shelling that came with the Syrian Civil War, Damascus was known throughout the world as a historically rich and culturally diverse city. Mohamad shudders to think of what it will be known for now.

“Collateral Damage” by Mohamad Hafez

To stave off depression and intense feelings of helplessness, Mohamad took the skills he was learning in his architecture courses and began privately crafting Syrian streetscapes in miniature architectonic montages—from memory—out of found objects and scrap materials.

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“My models showed my love and my passion for the multilayered culture and society of old Damascus,” said Mohamad. “In helping me deal with being separated from my family, I found catharsis and a way to celebrate the complexity and richness of the city I remembered and those that lived there.”

I met Mohamad before an artist talk he delivered at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, where I work as the director of the Harris Writing Program. His work was being exhibited on a wall I passed by each morning on my way to my workspace as part of a grand opening celebration for our new building, the Keller Center. As a teacher of public policy writing, I’m always thinking about new ways to connect with different audiences and persuade even the most steadfastly stubborn to take action. Over the past few years, I’ve read plenty about the Syrian Civil War, but I hadn’t yet figured out why so much of the world seems unmoved by what’s happening there. As an American, I’ve worried about the troops we have fighting there, but I hadn’t given much thought to those who called Syria home. And I’ve seen the pictures of the bombed-out buildings and cratered courtyards; I’ve even cried at the images of Syrian children’s bodies washed up on European shores and those killed by sarin gas. But until I reached out to Mohamad to talk to him about his art, I hadn’t delved deep into the psyche of someone whose family had escaped so much suffering.

Mohamad Hafez, Photo by Alan Karchmer

The son of well-educated professionals, Mohamad is a slender man with a gentle voice. He slicks his thinning black hair straight back; it curls at the base of his neck. His horn-rimmed glasses and charcoal gray sport coat give him a thoughtful and professorial look. Beneath his smile, Mohamad grows a bushy black beard, and above it he has fashioned his mustache into amateur handlebars—“to confuse the stereotype,” he tells the audience that attended his talk.

His most recent work—UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage—humanizes refugees without romanticizing them. After meeting some from several different countries—Afghanistan, Congo, Syria, Iraq, and Sudan—Mohamad built miniature recreations of specific rooms, homes, buildings, and landscapes ravaged by war that were described to him by the refugees. The models tell the story of loss, displacement, and devastation.

“Amjad’s Story,” from UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage. Courtesy Mohamad Hafez

When the Syrian civil war erupted in the spring of 2011, Mohamad felt traumatized by the magnitude of the devastation he saw in daily news reports. “My creativity was paralyzed,” he told me. “What had been my passion—my art—was cast into a block of despair. I didn’t make anything beautiful for two years after that.”

While beginning his career as a corporate architect, Mohamad eventually returned to his private art-making to help him process what was quickly becoming one of the largest humanitarian crises of the 21st century. By day he was the lead designer for a 50-story office tower in downtown Houston, and on nights and weekends, his emotional state concerning his home country could be reflected in his art. What had begun as beautiful old Damascene facades that bounced around in his mind’s eye transformed into grim depictions of the total decimation wrought by modern war.

“We are living in troubled times,” Mohamad told me.

Nearly 70 million people around the world are currently displaced by war and environmental catastrophe, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Western electorates in Europe are agonizing about the economic and cultural impacts millions of refugees bring with them to their shores.

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“What made you finally show your work?” I ask him, after learning the models were never created for public consumption but only for Mohamad himself. “Why not keep it a private form of therapy?”

“It started when I was in Italy,” he explained to me. “I was there procuring marble for my project in Houston, and I got a call from my brother-in-law. ‘I’m in Sweden,’ he tells me. ‘Can you come here?’”

The war and the destruction and the mass migrations suddenly overwhelmed Mohamad. “It felt like I had flown straight into a concrete barrier,” he said. “I am a Muslim, an Arab, a Syrian. I have a beard, and my name is Mohamad,” he continued. “Seeing my brother-in-law in that refugee camp with other refugees from all over the world—it looked like the UN or something—I started to think that perhaps my art could be useful in connecting people in these deeply divided times.”

“Damascus,” from The Very First Work of Mohamad Hafez

While taking in his work and absorbing the meaning behind it, I heard the story of Amjad, a Syrian man Mohamad knew. During the early days of the Arab spring, Amjad became an activist, marching in one of the first protests. He saw friends killed. He hated the Syrian secret police. The anger and fear he felt toward them bubbled to the surface every time he saw a white Peugeot 504, the secret police’s car of choice. For Amjad, the car became a trigger for a terrible memory that clicks into place in his mind each time he sees one. One day he saw a white Peugeot 504 parked down the street from his house. It left that day with his neighbor, a fellow activist, handcuffed in the back seat.

In an effort to earn their son’s release, Amjad’s neighbor’s parents sold nearly all their possessions so they could afford the payment demanded of them. Soon after the payment was made, however, Amjad’s neighbor’s cold dead body was delivered to his parent’s front door without explanation or justification.

Mohamad’s recreation of Amjad’s story took the form of a centuries-old stone wall in a residential district of Damascus. The faded turquoise and ochre patina evokes better times now past.

I can imagine Mohamad in his studio. The air smells of incense and strong Syrian coffee. Tranquil notes of traditional Syrian music play softly in the background. On one of the walls is 15 feet of stacked shelves bearing the weight of all manner of outdated electronics, random bits, and discarded trash. On the opposite wall hangs a series of works in progress.

What would appear to be mismatched brass and copper ornaments for Mohamad become ancient-looking doorknobs. A malfunctioning Christmas bulb becomes a solitary street light hanging above the sidewalk. A child’s toy car becomes a symbol of oppression and brutality after Mohamad affixes miniature government license plates.

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Mohamad told me that he is frequently criticized for his art and the optimistic conversations his work is generating. He said that after living in the Midwest and in Texas and on the East Coast, he has seen the commonalities that exist between cultures and people from different backgrounds. He’s also seen the fearmongering that has been used to turn different people away from each other. I asked Mohamad if he ever fears for his safety being a Syrian Muslim in America with some of the anti-immigration rhetoric spreading in pockets of the country. He answered no, but admitted to being concerned about the indifference he sees toward refugees. “The person you’re afraid of,” Mohamad tells me, “isn’t that scary. They are people, like you and like your immigrant forefathers.”

Perhaps Tolstoy was right when he said that the purpose of art was to build a bridge of empathy between the artist and his viewers. Mohamad has built that bridge. It’s our job now to cross it.

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David Chrisinger

David Chrisinger is the executive director of the Public Policy Writing Workshop at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and the director of writing seminars for The War Horse. He is the author of several books, including The Soldier’s Truth: Ernie Pyle and the Story of World War II and Stories Are What Save Us: A Survivor’s Guide to Writing about Trauma. In 2022, he was the recipient of the 2022 George Orwell Award.

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