‘Love Without Borders’ art show reveals faces behind refugee experiences

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On Sunday at Berkeley’s Persian Center, UC Berkeley graduate Negeen Nawim met artist and Syrian refugee Hussain. The two did not exchange words, shake hands or maintain eye contact. In fact, Hussain wasn’t there at all — he was in Greece at a refugee camp. Only through his artwork did he communicate with Nawim, catching her eye with an oil painting of a bustling crowd rendered with careful, minimalist brushstrokes.

Hussain wasn’t the only refugee Nawim and other visitors at the “Love Without Borders Refugee Art Show” encountered. In fact, he was one of dozens of children, teenagers and adults whose work appeared in the show, all organized by Love Without Borders nonprofit founder Kayra Martinez. Due to the decisions of a number of nations in the European Union to close their borders, many of the creators of these pieces have previously experienced being stranded in camps and housing communities in Greece, where they sought asylum. Through art, Martinez hopes to bring hope, joy and a modicum of stability into the lives of such individuals.

The Love Without Borders nonprofit was founded in 2015, when Martinez, a flight attendant, witnessed thousands of refugees coming to her base in Germany. Witnessing the anguish and pain of so many displaced peoples up close, Martinez decided to take action and began helping distribute food and clothes to refugee families passing through a local train station. It wasn’t until about five months into her volunteer work that Martinez began tapping into art as a resource for healing and community. “I started just to take paper and crayons into the tents,” she said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “And that was the first time that I saw the kids just really content, happy and calm.”

Shortly after this experience, Martinez came up with the idea to bring the art to display spaces such as the Persian Center to show and sell. She began posting the paintings online and receiving orders from all around the world. “I was sending (the paintings) to Sweden Norway, Hungary, Germany — any place that we had orders. And then I was giving the money back directly to the families in the camp,” she said. This money allowed families to purchase domestic necessities such as cooking ovens. Martinez recalled various women in the refugee camps telling her things such as “This is the first time I’ve been able to cook for my children in years,”— something she found truly emotional and motivating.

The artist biographies accompanying each work in the Love Without Borders exhibition served as constant reminders of the humanity of the individuals behind each work. In a media-saturated world, it can be easy to feel disillusioned with tragedy — how can we possibly conceptualize the real impact and resonance of disasters that we hear and read about daily? The show painted a picture (though, perhaps, an incomplete one) of some of the faces and stories behind quantitative figures informing us that the Syrian Refugee Crisis has displaced 13 million people. Nawim entered the Love Without Borders show expecting to resonate with a number of the pieces — her parents, she noted, are refugees from Afghanistan. But the show more than exceeded her expectations. “I wasn’t expecting to get emotional but I did. It’s been really, really wonderful. And it’s really nice hearing all the stories here. It really puts a name … to what I read about in the news,” she said.

To date, “Love Without Borders” has shown throughout the world in sites scattered throughout the U.S., South Korea, the Philippines and Europe. Viewers worldwide have attended Martinez’s exhibition spaces to view this visual art, which stands for much more than aesthetic appeal. Here, art provides an outlet for people living a life of constant instability, and serves as touching, tangible proof that their voices are both heard and respected. “(These artists have) lost their voices,” Martinez said. “But we’re here as a bridge and as a support and as a friend to be able to tell their stories.”

Ryan Tuozzolo is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].