A Midtown Exhibit Reveals Untold Stories of Middle Eastern War Refugees

The gallery explores what life is like inside occupied territories and refugee camps
Burning Bodies (2018) by Wael Darweish
Burning Bodies (2018) by Wael Darweish. Photo by Andrea Rude McKenzie

Poet and playwright Biba Sheik grew up in Bloomfield Hills with her father, Morris, a Lebanese immigrant who struggled to gain citizenship when he first came to America in 1951. Partly inspired by his generosity to help Lebanese refugees, Sheik’s exhibit, “Mitli Mitlak,” translates to “like me, like you” in Arabic. Through a variety of portraits, refugee artists showcase what life is like in the many salvation camps and barbed wire-occupied territories that they live in. Intertwining her own poetry throughout the collection of works, Sheik brings the heartbreaking stories that often go unrecognized in the United States. We sat down with the artist to learn more about her nomadic exhibit, now showing at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Detroit.

Hour Detroit: Many of the artists that are featured in “Mitli Mitlak,” are refugees currently living in refugee camps. How did you weave their narratives into this collection of work?

Biba Sheik: During the Lebanese Civil War, I lived between Berlin and Beirut, which were war-ridden countries at the time. When they gained peace in 1990, new governments were established, and I learned how a society forms — this knowledge influenced me as an artist. While Lebanon was rebuilding, I worked with children who were psychologically affected by the war. Through the theatrical productions I arranged for them to participate in, they were able to express many of the emotions that came from the hardships they faced, which often involved leaving everything they knew behind to find salvation.

Do you continue to rehabilitate refugee children through exercises? 

Yes, throughout the Syrian War, I conducted creative interventions with Syrian youth refugees, who were detained on the Greek Island of Mykonos, Athens, and Beirut. Their nomadic lifestyle, brought on upon from constantly fleeing warfare combat, inevitably left them unable to adjust to a predictable lifestyle. They had no sense of time, and were not receiving an education, but squatting in tents. These refugee camps provided a type of freedom that many of the other NGO-operated camps lacked; it was a place where they were happier because, together, they made it function and were treated more humanely. With my workshops, I would have to take each refugee participant by hand and lead them to our workspace, which was an abandoned school that refugees were also squatting in. In addition to physical training, there was a lot of vocal work, which provided an opportunity for the refugees to release a variety of strong sentiments. After four weeks of working with these children, I heard stories that involved many of them running away from their homes, with or without their families, to avoid their stalkers and captors, such as ISIS. These children of war confronted their captors through improvisation, which provided the justice that they deserved. Some reached a sort of catharsis — a rare experience to have in a salvation camp.

How have these creative interventions inspired your work?

The upsetting stories that these children revealed were integrated into the theater script for “Mitli Mitlak.” Many of them, including Lebanese orphans, were abandoned and their neglect manifested into muteness. We worked to find their voices, and in tow, their happiness. Along with my poetry and the 13 other Arabic artists whose paintings are displayed at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, I wanted to convey the reality that these refugees live.

Communicating with these 13 artists must of proved to be difficult. 

All of the artists come from different Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries, that, although are relatively close in distance to one another, are very much divided, unlike in the U.S. where states are individualistic but united. Many of them I contacted by writing a letter explaining “Mitli Mitlak” and what their involvement could be. Inspired by the Beat Generation, I wanted to foster a community of creators that could influence and work with one another. With such a formula, I believe something new can come out of this union.

What does “Refugee Crisis,” the theme for your traveling exhibit mean?

The theme originated from a theater script that I wrote when people were not discussing refugees and their experiences. What comes to mind, concerning those experiences, are the ones of the Kurdish people, who traveled from one country to another, by foot, only to be turned away at the borders. They hiked mountains, with no food and sucked on snow to stay alive. While en route, people died and were left unburied. Parents were carrying their children and the sick on their backs — these are stories that often get left unheard, but need to be told. My theater scripts and corresponding poetry were shared with the 13 other artists in the exhibit, and their ability to relate with my work is a true testament that the refugee experience is a shared experience. Whether these artists are living in Lebanon, Syria, or Palestine, they see themselves in the characters of this play. They’re fleshing out their stories through paintings and visual imagery.

In what ways did you draw inspiration from your father for “Mitli Milak“?

My father was the son of two orphans and grew up very poor. As a child, he wanted to study in the nearby village of Hafbaya, but because of his parents’ financial status, was denied the learning opportunity. He ran away to Lebanon’s capital, Beirut and approached the director of the American University of Beirut about enrolling in night classes. His academic excellence led to a full scholarship to Wayne State University. When he arrived, Lebanon created new legislation, which caused my father’s grant to be de-funded and left him penniless. He slept on Detroit park benches and worked in Ford’s assembly line to earn what he needed to survive. He was incredibly intelligent, and formulated mercury ion vaporization — a contribution to the theory of ion propulsion that was an alternative to caustics — which interested many of Detroit’s automakers like GM and Ford. Growing up, I remember spending time in the laboratory he set up downstairs. He did well for himself, and gave back to those who needed help. In 1982, when Israel bombarded Lebanon, power and phone lines were destroyed, which left Lebanese students in the U.S. unable to communicate with their families. My father established a scholarship fund for many students across the nation. After the Lebanon Civil War ended, he provided the means to rebuild most of his hometown in Lebanon. The refugees who maintained their elegance, under degraded circumstances, are people like us. Before my father died, he told me to live with a humanitarian purpose — and that’s what I’m doing with this exhibition.

For more information, visit nnamdicenter.org

Related: Q&A: Poet and Activist Cleo Wade