Refugee art show highlights local stories of people impacted by the ban

Mohammed Almeliya and his son Adam. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

President Trump’s executive order that temporarily suspends refugee resettlement is having impacts in Alaska, where about 140 people are resettled every year. One refugee, an artist from Iraq, is working to help the community learn more about the new arrivals and what the executive order means to our community through a temporary art show.

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Mohammed Almeliya sat in his small Anchorage apartment, drawings and paintings hanging from walls and leaning on tables. He pulled out a small portrait he just completed and the tiny photo booth snapshot it was based on, clearly amused by the outcome.

“His friend, he give me a picture,” Almeliya said, pointing to his son. The friend told Almeliya he wanted a portrait from the photo. “I say, ‘Are you sure?'”

Almeliya laughed. The result is an elegant, detailed painting of a young woman making a ridiculous goofy face.

Almeliya, a refugee from Iraq, started drawing and sculpting as a small child and eventually earned a degree in fine arts. In Iraq he owned a large art gallery and taught classes. But three and a half years ago he moved to Alaska with his son Adam because they were unsafe in their home country. He left everything behind — his paintings, his sculptures.

“He came to the United States with his suitcase. That’s all,” Hayat, a translator, said, translating for Almeliya because he is still learning English.

His portfolio is now just a small binder filled with hyper-realistic portraits drawn in pencil and photos of the murals he painted at the Northway Mall in Anchorage.

His dream of starting a new gallery is a ways off, Almeliya said, because he has to learn the local rules and regulations. He has recently started teaching again.

“I was so happy when I was teaching because I remember when I taught in Iraq,” Almeliya said through the translator.

Almeliya is working with a group of refugees from around the world to draw portraits for an upcoming art show.

The event was planned before Trump issued the executive order on refugees, Jessica Kovarik said. She’s the director of Catholic Social Services’ refugee resettlement program. “It’s a really great opportunity to introduce refugees to the larger Anchorage community and really help them see that they are people just like you and I who are wanting the same opportunities that any of us do.”

The executive order, which suspends the refugee program for 120 days, is having an immediate effect on Anchorage families. 78 people were due to arrive before September. Most of them already have family members who were resettled here from Sudan, Somalia, Ukraine and South Sudan.

“So the people we were going to be resettling in the coming months, we don’t know when they’ll be coming. Because all their security screenings, their fingerprints, their medical screenings. All of that will have expired. So they have to go back to the beginning,” Kovarik said. They could be delayed for years.

Almeliya is concerned that the 90-day travel ban for Iraqi citizens that was also included in the executive order will delay getting get his brother’s family here, too. Just a few months ago more of their relatives were killed by the so-called Islamic State.

Almeliya said that now, he’s starting to worry about his son’s safety here, in the U.S.

Adam, a high school student, said he’s always been bullied for being a Muslim. “It’s always been a thing. About being a Muslim or being a terrorist. All these things. Either a stereotype or flat out racism.”

But recently, the atmosphere has changed. Now people “joke” that Trump is going to deport him, he said.

Almeliya said he’s worried about his son. “I don’t care about myself, but I care about my son.”

Anne Hillman is the healthy communities editor at Alaska Public Media and a host of Hometown, Alaska. Reach her at Read more about Anne here.

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