Iraqi artist struggles to start anew in North Texas




Posted on December 20, 2011 at 11:02 PM

Updated Wednesday, Dec 21 at 3:18 AM

With the U.S. military mission in Iraq officially over this month, troops can finally return home to their families. However, right here in north Texas, there is a man who can never return home.

He is an Iraqi artist, living in exile in Dallas. His work is known around the world, his passion in paint so telling, his expression could get him killed.

Yet this rare gem lives in Dallas, unknown to most, struggling to make it in America.

Waleed Arshad's relationship with the U.S. military started in 2003, when he became fed up with graffiti around his neighborhood.

"They write something like bad word, like in the top of Saddam's not nice for kids," Arshad said. "I grab my material and I paint something blue sky and sun and bird."

Arshad says he wanted his art to make children forget the vandalism, and feel hopeful and happy instead. As he was painting, he says several U.S. troops surrounded him. They wanted to know why he was painting. After he answered, they offered him a contract: to help design and paint bridges and squares through all of Baghdad.

It was a massive undertaking; the equivalent of painting all the way from Dallas to Fort Worth. However, the job meant work for artists and contractors across Baghdad, including Arshad's father.

"I put like my signature, my idea in Baghdad. I visit each area, I see the area, this place and size, and go back home, do sketch."

From his sketches, workers brought his designs to life all over the city. His stamp on Baghdad lasted for two years, until he had to flee the country.

Working with the U.S. military proved too dangerous. He says a terrorist stopped him one day on the road, and he had to lie about where he was going.

Later, he said the government in Iraq interrogated him for four hours for having beer in his car. They questioned him inside a mosque.

"They asked me a lot of questions. Where are you from? Which denomination? Sunni or Shiite?"

Arshad said he lied because he heard a man being beaten in the next room, and feared he was next.

That is when he decided he had to leave, that his children would be in danger if they stayed in Iraq.

Arshad moved his wife and two children to Syria. He lost the military contract, but says the art continues to this day, and that people are still painting murals throughout Baghdad.

Once in Syria, Arshad held an exhibition, and invited other artists living in exile to show their work. He said he used the platform to speak out against his government, and talk about the violence and religious oppression.

He also said it is the reason he will be killed if he ever returns to his homeland.

His work is contemporary, but each stroke has meaning. "Each touch, I touch my canvas, I feel I have responsibility for that. I have to like, do something truth. It's not just abstract."

His art is filled with traffic lights. "I put traffic light sign because the traffic light is like meaning, like waiting."

He is waiting in exile. Waiting for the war to end. Waiting to go home.

After a year, he wanted to return to Baghdad and see his parents, but they told him "no." While he was gone, terrorists took possession of his home.

"They come to my dad and they tell my dad, we have three days, you have to get out of here."

Some people knew Arshad had worked with the U.S. military painting murals and also soldier's portraits. Because of that relationship, Arshad's father feared for his son's life. He told Arshad not to return.

Two years after moving to Syria, the United Nations helped Arshad move to a new country. He had a choice between the United States, Canada, and Sweden. Arshad said the U.S. had the worst benefits for refugees, but he chose it anyway because he felt bonded with soldiers and Americans.

In 2008, moving to North Texas proved harder than he expected. He did not speak the language, and came with almost nothing.

"When I arrived in Dallas, everything got different, everything got hard. I have no idea... I think, I have to start my life in the beginning."

Perhaps the most heart-wrenching for Arshad after leaving his family is what he gave up — his artwork. "I have to learn English. And, I have to work," he explained. "I have to take care of my kids now. This is the time for my kids."

Just like his artwork, where Arshad is waiting at the traffic light, in Dallas his life is still about direction.

"I don't know how to use the GPS. What's the GPS? Oh, my God!" he joked. He was so afraid when he arrived, his apartment became his new place of exile. "I make [my apartment] like small country with my family, my kids."

Arshad's first job in Dallas was cleaning at a church. He says the people were generous, and even though he was not a Christian, they willingly donated furniture for his home.

But cleaning did not fulfill him. Neither did driving, which was his second job.

He now works at Walmart. "I have responsibility for my dad and mom. They don't work. I help them for the money," Arshad said.

If Arshad is not painting, to him, he is not truly living. He said it is "like air, like oxygen. If I don't paint 100 percent, I think I will die soon. This is the only way I explain my feeling."

Last year, he flew back to Syria, hoping to meet his parents in Baghdad. With tears in his eyes, he described pleading with them over the phone, begging to hug and kiss them. They still refused.

Even to this day, Arshad has no pictures of his family in his home. He said it would be too painful to be reminded of what he can't have.

He keeps a collection of polished stones in his room, taken from the places he has been. Kissing a rock he took from his homeland, he says, "Sometimes when I miss my country... I keep... the stone. I feel like I kiss Baghdad... Baghdad for me, like everything. Baghdad [is] my childhood. Baghdad is my mom. Baghdad is my dad."

It has now been nearly four years since he moved his family to Dallas. His children are thriving; they love it here. He says most of all, they love the schools and their teachers

He started the paperwork required for his parents to fly over for a visit to the U.S. His mother does not want to leave her homeland, but Arshad's father and brothers may come.

Arshad's English is improving, and his art is gaining interest again.

His paintings are taking on new meaning.

The Iraqi artist says the traffic light will remain in his work, but it will be painted in a new light. "Different colors, and different traffic light," he said. "I think the beautiful traffic light coming soon."

Arshad said he finally has hope again; hope for his future here, and hope that Iraq can grow strong and beautiful.

Most of all, he has hope that one day he will set foot in Baghdad again, and embrace his parents.

"I think, like, we dance together in the street, if I go back."