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Artists from war-torn Middle East find peace and creativity in Sacramento

Iraq Refugee Ghanim Alobaidi works on one of the paintings he will feature in the Art for Humanity refugee art exhibit in Sacramento, Calif., Sun., Sept. 20, 2015. Proceeds from the Art for Humanity will benefit the clients and programs of the IRC in Sacramento. It will be held Thursday, September 24, 2015 at 6:30 at the Warehouse Artist Lofts 1108 R Street, Sacramento.
Iraq Refugee Ghanim Alobaidi works on one of the paintings he will feature in the Art for Humanity refugee art exhibit in Sacramento, Calif., Sun., Sept. 20, 2015. Proceeds from the Art for Humanity will benefit the clients and programs of the IRC in Sacramento. It will be held Thursday, September 24, 2015 at 6:30 at the Warehouse Artist Lofts 1108 R Street, Sacramento. rbyer@sacbee.com

Once one of Iraq’s most famous artists, Ghanim Alobaidi remembers the night in 2005 when three men, their faces covered, came to his Baghdad home and gave him a letter with a bullet inside.

“They said, ‘If you draw or paint anything ever again, we’ll put a bullet in your head, burn your house and kill your family,’ ” recalled the 52-year-old.

He and his wife and two children fled to Damascus, Syria, to rebuild their lives and his career, only to have others issue the same threat in 2010, telling him his paintings were “haram,” or forbidden by Allah.

Alobaidi and his family have finally found safety in Sacramento, alongside dozens of refugees who have recently resettled from Middle Eastern war zones. His work, along with that of several other refugee artists, will be on display Thursday night at Art for Humanity, a fundraiser for the resettlement agency the International Rescue Committee’s Sacramento branch to be held at Warehouse Artist Lofts. One of Alobaidi’s neighbors at the lofts, Ramsina Szanto – a blind pianist who fled religious persecution in Iran – will perform Iranian-inspired pieces against a backdrop of paintings by Alobaidi and others.

Alobaidi and Szanto joined more than 50,000 refugees who have arrived in Sacramento County since 1983, according to the California Department of Social Services. Nearly 50 refugees who fled violence in Syria have resettled in the Sacramento region, according to the IRC, while Sacramento County took in 1,500 refugees from around the world last year.

IRC officials said they anticipate resettling more than 800 new refugees in the region by 2016, many of them Syrians, a number that could rise even higher with the announcement Sunday that the U.S. will welcome 100,000 refugees a year in 2017 – up from 70,000 now.

One of the world’s largest refugee resettlement agencies, the IRC has helped hundreds of refugees move to the Sacramento area, including Hmong and Mien fleeing Communist regimes, evangelical Christians who suffered religious persecution in the former Soviet Union, and refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, said IRC’s Sacramento resettlement director, Lisa Welze.

Sacramento County is already known as one of America’s most diverse regions, but with rents far cheaper than in other big cities, it’s drawing some people who once might have been resettled in the Bay Area.

“Sacramento has a history of welcoming refugees due to the cultural diversity of the city’s residents, as well as their interest in the arts, culture, food and talents that refugees bring to the area,” Welze said. “The refugees arriving to Sacramento are the most highly educated refugees coming in nationally and quickly integrate into jobs and their communities.”

In recent years, Sacramento has become a hub for Iraqis and Afghans who faced persecution for helping the U.S. against al-Qaida and the Taliban, including a man who was hit and killed by a texting driver in July just weeks after arriving. Under a special immigrant visa program, Sacramento has welcomed more than 1,700 Afghans and Iraqis, far more than any other county in California.

Alobaidi said after he fled Syria, thieves stole more than 500 of his paintings from his house. Arriving in Sacramento last year, he paints up to 16 hours a day in his loft, creating oils, acrylics, sketches, silhouettes and watercolors.

“I can do four or five pieces a day,” he said. “When I finish a painting I call my wife, Hind, and ask, ‘What do you think?’ She has she the gift – she knows about art and color.”

More than 20 of his paintings large and small now hang in their loft, including “Euphrates Life of River People,” which depicts life on the river near Basra, where he spent the first 10 years of his life. “It’s paradise – people never have to go to a store. They live off of fish, sheep and cows, and make their own yogurt,” he said.

He hopes to complete two major projects – “Thanks America” and the hugely ambitious “The Wall of Civilization,” which he says will be the largest painting on earth, visible from the moon.

“Art is the mirror of civilization, and I want to do something for the world,” he said. When he arrived in Sacramento, he worked in Folsom as a technician for Apple for about a year to pay the $486-a-month rent. The loft space offers subsidized rent on some units for artists.

He meets his expenses through a mix of savings, unemployment insurance and financial aid that his wife and 21-year-old daughter, Roze, receive from Sacramento City College, where they study English as a second language.

His daughter said she hopes to become a doctor. His 9-year-old son, Mustafa, used to take cover under a table when he heard bombs going off in Syria. When asked what he likes best about Sacramento, he answered, “There is no war.” Mustafa said he wants to be an artist too.

On some days, from down the hallway float the strains of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” played with a darker, Iranian flavor. Szanto, a 46-year-old Christian Assyrian, fled the northwestern Iranian city of Urmiah with her family in 1986.

She shares her loft with her guide dog Kyla, her keyboard and a 20-volume set of the Bible in Braille. Some of her pieces are based on psalms, she said.

“I play by ear – there’s a line from my ears to my hands,” she said. “I love it – Iranian music’s the best.” She also sings, “but only if it comes straight from the heart.”

Szanto said after childhood glaucoma blinded her, “I exchanged my sight for my savior’s. By the grace of God, I have the freedom to be what I want to be, and I landed in this lovely place.” She’s now studying nutrition at Sacramento City College.

Thursday’s reception will feature two other Iraqi refugee artists: Raad Shamoon, now an American River College student, who has won awards for his sculpture, ceramics and paintings, some of which deal with war and conflict; and Saud Al Asadi, whose family fled to Egypt after two attempts on their lives. He now creates floor-to-ceiling-tall paintings.

The exhibit will also feature sculptures by Hmong refugee Vang Dan Yang, who fled communists in Laos and became the first in his family to graduate from college. His goal? To teach art.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @StephenMagagnini

Art for Humanity, a fundraiser for the International Rescue Committee, will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Warehouse Artist Lofts, 1108 R St. in Sacramento. The event will feature food and drink from local restaurants, including Ella Dining Room & Bar, de Vere’s Irish Pub and Fish Face Poke Bar. Also on hand: an exclusive craft beer made with refugee-grown produce from Ruhstaller Brewery and wine tasting by local winery Nello Olivo.

Tickets for the exhibition and fundraiser can be purchased at www.Rescue.org/SacArt4Humanity or by visiting the International Rescue Committee website at www.Rescue.org/NorthernCalifornia.

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