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'People Are Dying Every Single Day': The Refugee Painting Syria's Pain

Sammi Taylor

Syrian refugee and artist Miream Salameh spoke to Broadly about what it means to paint the destruction of her homeland.

In the first years of the Syrian revolution, a group of journalists, artists and activists formed Justice Magazine, a publication designed as a forum to talk about the horrors they were witnessing. Six months later, attacks and airstrikes force the founders to disband, and their members to flee Syria.

Miream Salameh, 33, found safety in Melbourne, Australia, where she has lived for four years. The artist has continued the work of Justice through her own art; her paintings providing Australian audiences—and all those that view her work on social media—with insight into the destruction and pain of her homeland.

Broadly spoke with Salameh about the intersection of activism and art, and painting from lived experience.

All images by Miriam Salameh

BROADLY: When did you start working as an artist?
Miream Salameh: I can't remember not being an artist. I've been drawing [since] I was a child—it was my favourite hobby. I went to study Fine Art in Homs, to learn more and be a professional. It's a big world, and I explore it with art.

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When did you start using your art to convey the situation in Syria?
I started painting using colour about a year ago, [depicting] Syria and refugees and asylum seekers in detention centres. This art has a very deep way of affecting everyone. I paint to give people a loud voice; my art is for those who don't have a voice at all.

How much of your art is relaying what you have personally witnessed?
Some paintings are from how I remember events or tragedies that happened in front of me. I also paint from photos my friends who are still in Syria. I paint the photos they've taken from the massacres, and after the bombs. For me, it's about saying to the viewer, "How do you feel about these massacres?"

People are dying every single day, every second.

You've said that your art and your activism are one and the same, that it's impossible to separate them.
My art, my message, is about human rights. It's about humanity—it talks about the facts in my country, that people are dying every single day, every second. We lived this experience. We lost a lot of our friends and saw them imprisoned and tortured. We saw the bombings. I'm trying with my art, and with my story, to tell people what I lived through.

Your art also looks at the suffering of those held in Australia's offshore detention centres. Are the same kind of emotions tied to those paintings?
There are Syrian people in those detention centres. I need to defend the rights of these people, too. It's illegal to decide someone's freedom—to put these people there with no charge, no reason, keeping them for years. It's destroying lives.

What message do you want your art to send about their situation?
That these people should be allowed to come and start their new futures, and start their lives. They can contribute to this country. I think there are beautiful things in Australia. There's multiculturalism, and it can bring us all together.

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