Just three months ago, the last U.S. troops were withdrawing from Iraq.
Families cried and cheered as their loved ones walked through the gate at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport., finally returning home.
For Waleed Arshad, being reunited with his family was only a dream — a wish that his exile could end, and he could safely embrace his parents in Baghdad.
Now, for the first time since moving to Dallas, Arshad is seeing life in a new light — one that transforms on a vibrant canvas. "Now I enjoy this life here...blue is like sunshine, a beautiful day."
Arshad moved his family to North Texas four years ago, after the Middle East became too dangerous for the artist. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Arshad helped design and paint murals in Baghdad. He also worked with U.S. troops, painting their portraits on base.
The work almost cost him his life.
Arshad moved to Damascus and debuted his 'Waiting' series, as he waited for the day he could return home.
He also spoke out against his government. He was told if he went back to Iraq, he would be killed.
Eventually, Arshad was given a choice of where he could live. He chose the United States because of his connection with troops. He spoke no English, and had to leave his artwork behind.
Learning English opened doors in his life. He has new relationships with people, and is embracing the place he now calls home.
Craighead Green Galley in Dallas recognized the potential in Arshad's work, and offered him a first launch, where he could show his new series.
"It's a whole different experience to see his story in a room, or another artist in the room, than it is to look at one or two pieces; you get the full picture of what they're really about," explained gallery owner Kenneth Craighead.
"I have one painting that's named 'The Portal'," Arshad said as he examined his work. "The Portal means for me, portal for life here in Dallas... I see everything different... three years ago, when I see Dallas, [is not how] I see Dallas now... day by day, I love Dallas more."
The exhibit opened Thursday night, and is already generating serious interest. "The Portal" may already have a buyer.
One visitor described being able to feel the passion behind each stroke, and was drawn to the vivid colors.
A fellow artist and friend, Aaron Camelhaar, is blown away. "I feel like he's stuck to who he is, even though he's not where he comes from...and it's pretty inspiring to me, because sometimes I lose my way...and it's good to see someone that, through adversity, keeps going," Camelhaar said.
The experience is different for everyone, but Kenneth Craighead says Arshad's story and message make all the difference. "The credibility of the artist and their ability to paint is always number one," he said. "Art can be real mysterious to people; it's sometimes intimidating when there's a story that's being told. I think it takes away some of the intimidation [when people hear his story], and they're understanding a little bit more about the work and the meaning behind the work."
As with his last exhibition, Arshad says there is still a sense of waiting in his work, but the meaning is entirely new. Before, Arshad was waiting for his exile to end. Now, he waits for deeper roots in Dallas.
"The difference now is waiting — waiting for, like small home. Iraqi refugees need to own homes, not rent," the artist said.
An example of his North Texas ties can be pulled right out of his painting — literally. Arshad's passport is painted into a canvas.
He says many of his exiled friends leave North America because the life is too hard to start at the bottom. However, he says most end up returning to the U.S. because they miss it so much; they realize their love for America and its people.
For Arshad, moving forward is everything.
"This is a new beginning for me and two kids, for my family....I had a lot of exhibitions in New York, Middle East, Iraq, and United States, also; but this is the exhibition most important because I decide, from this exhibition, I make the exile home...this is the portal exhibition in my life."
The First Launch of Waleed Arshad runs through March 24 at Craighead Green Gallery, 1011 Dragon St in Dallas.