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Israeli Artist, Syrian Refugee Make Art Not War In San Diego

Reported by Katie Schoolov

A nonprofit Jewish foundation hosted a refugee artist-in-residence program with an Israeli sculptor to help a Syrian refugee heal through art.


Hunched on the floor, Abdullah Taysan sifted through a box of shattered mirror shards. He was searching for the final shimmering touches to add to a sculpture that's twice as tall as he is. It's a tree crafted out of stacked slabs of a stump covered in mosaic tiles and branches made of wood sticks bent at every angle.

The artwork brings a pop of color and spark to a drab converted barn in Encinitas and gives Taysan, a Syrian refugee, a creative outlet. It's part of an experimental refugee artist-in-residence project intended to aid those arriving from the horrors of the country’s conflict.

"This tree is not real, but it has real branches and it looks alive and it has a spirit," Taysan said in Arabic during an interview this fall.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Hidden behind the large sculpture in a converted barn, refugee artist-in-residence Abdullah Taysan glues a shard of mirror to a wooden branch, Oct. 13, 2016.

He talked of the tree's vitality, but friends say before he started work on the piece, Taysan himself was dispirited. He had recently arrived in San Diego's City Heights neighborhood from a Jordanian refugee camp. He had fled there with his wife and four kids to escape the fighting in Syria.

Joshua Sherman, a program manager for the nonprofit Leichtag Foundation, which hosted the art project, said the toll of Taysan's journey to San Diego was visible.

"I was told they were very stressed and anxious from the move," Sherman said.

Sherman said the organization was eager to help and had felt spurred to act after witnessing horrific images of the war and refugee crisis. Sherman specifically pointed to an infamous photo of a 3-year-old's body on a Turkish beach after his family attempted to flee Syria by boat.

"Knowing that the Jews came out of this terrible Holocaust 70 years ago, and wanting to say never again, we saw this was the opportunity to say, 'This is a Jewish issue to welcome the stranger and do what we can to save these lives,'" he said.

Since the war began in 2011, the United Nations reports hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions displaced. Ten thousand refugees from Syria were resettled this past year in the U.S. San Diego accepted 788 — the most of any city mainly in City Heights and El Cajon.

While one of his exhibits was on display in San Diego, Israeli artist Raffael Lomas guided Taysan through the creative process.

Photo by Kris Arciaga

KPBS City Heights Reporter Tarryn Mento conducts a Skype interview with Israeli artist Raffael Lomas, Nov. 7, 2016.

"He’s facing so many challenges that I really felt that the best is to do is to allow energy come (to) out again after being in a refugee camp unable to decide for himself small things," Lomas said in a Skype interview. "So here he could decide if he wants to do it like this — less color, more color, this plant or the other plant — and not really trying to enter the meaning."

Using only materials they found inside a barn on the Leichtag property, Lomas and Taysan constructed the sculpture without speaking the same language. Leichtag's Sherman said they developed unique ways to communicate when a translator wasn’t on hand.

"Abdullah had only been here for a few weeks at that point and they needed to use nonverbal and hand communications," he said, and imitated the noise of a drill that the two would use to refer to the power tool.

Israeli artist Lomas said the two also overcame cultural barriers. Their countries, Syria and Israel, are technically in a state of war and have been for decades.

"Our countries are enemy countries. He was the first Syrian human being I met. After meeting him, I would be happy to meet many more," said Lomas, who was named a TED Fellow in 2010.

Photo credit: Joshua Sherman / Leichtag Foundation

Refugee artist-in-residence Abdullah Taysan, left, uses a drill to fasten together pieces of wood held by Israeli artist Raffael Lomas.

In the end, they created an outstretched tree with solid roots, giving a dried eucalyptus a second chance. It was unveiled in October as part of an exhibit with works produced by artists from Iraq and Russia. Taysan also added his own small tree to the display.

"I think the connection to a dead tree and trying to connect to roots in a foreign country, this is the way I interpret the work. Trying to relate or trying to put roots in a foreign country with no language trying to believe that some color could come out of it some vitality." Lomas said.

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

Taysan said the experience has helped make him comfortable in his new home, although not all of his troubles are gone. He’s still learning the language, searching for a job and caring for his children, two of whom are disabled but had never been diagnosed before coming to the U.S. He’s also overcoming the rhetoric associated with refugees, especially Muslims.

"Of course at the beginning it was very difficult to adapt to this new life, we didn’t know anyone here, everything was new to us but, we started to meet the people and get used to the new atmosphere we started to feel comfortable and started to love it all and love the people and it feels like you have a new goal in life," he said.

Leichtag hopes to repeat the project with more Syrian refugees and possibly bring Taysan in as a paid consultant. The organization also helps fund several other initiatives also focused on aiding Syrian refugees.


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