Ever since I got in touch with art, I knew it was going to change my life.
Every time I paint, I feel myself getting pulled into a new adventure of an unknown forest. For me, art is more than just a hobby: it is my life.
So, when my life turned upside down and I had to seek asylum out of Afghanistan, I knew that deep down I will never be alone—I still have my art with me.
My journey began when I arrived in Malaysia after a challenging and lengthy route from India. At the airport, I realised that I was coming as an 'illegal immigrant’ due to some issues and I needed to hide at the airport for at least two days, until I could escape and sneak my way out.
Long story short, I managed to get a place to live somewhere in the city. However, when I first arrived in Malaysia, I was struggling to get a decent job. Unlike my previous life in Iran and Afghanistan, finding a job in this new country was far from easy. As immigrants in foreign land, our community has almost zero access to education and employment in the country. But I knew myself best and I knew that I could do more than this.
I started my first job at a refugee-run school. I received only RM80 (not more than USD20) as my monthly salary. At that time, I was teaching computer and art classes during the day, and doing photography as well as painting during the night to earn extra money. I even did some other jobs—such as housekeeping—to make ends meet.
That is, until I started Art Box PHM
I always know that art gives meaning to my life. It gives me inner peace, something that I could never find in any other place, especially in the midst of chaos I am going through. It pushes me into a journey of self-discovery. It helps me to question myself, only to find my true identity at the end of the path. Through art, I can create my own reality. I can tell my story, my thoughts, and my vision through paintbrush and splash of colors on the canvas.
With that in mind, I want to use my artistic experience to tell stories about my journey and my homeland. I want my community — that is still holding onto a little piece of hope, that we can find comfort and protection — to be together in a safe platform, where we can develop our artworks and use our talents to increase our livelihood. I want to create more financial opportunities for us, as refugee artists.
Although it is only logical for my community and me to feel devastated after leaving our whole lives at home, art gives back what has been taken away from us: empowerment and courage.
We are slowly rising back. We finally have reasons to wake up every morning. To set goals and dreams and move towards that goal. We stand tall, and together we are taking a leap of faith, to achieve great things by the end of the day.
It took many journeys and countries to shatter our hopes — It took one canvas to build it back up.
We express our hearts and minds in our artworks. In Art Box PHM, we market and share our arts and showcase our artworks to the public. We also hold an annual art exhibition starring our refugee artists who put their ideas and creativity into pencil sketches and watercolor paintings.
Sometimes we still have a hard time believing in our own abilities. But what keeps us going every day is the belief that art gives a real truth. We can see the world differently through a particular work of art. We are invited to seek the truth that we might not have understood before. That is in our job, as refugee artists, to convey our truths to the world so that people would hear our stories.
It is in our call to deliver our messages. Our loss. Our journey. Our aspirations. Our falling. Our shattered hearts. Our existence. Our hopes. Our wishes. Our joy. Our happiness. It is all within us, and I know if we keep going together as a strong community, we can break down all barriers.
After all, when a home has lost its meaning, we still carry it in our arts. And though it may not be enough, the colors painted on our canvases will last forever — just like our memories of the homeland that will always remain.
-A story about Reza Rostami, a 25 years old Afghan and a founder of Art Box PHM, a community that supports refugees in Malaysia by helping them to sell, showcase, and also market their artworks to a broader audience. Interviewed by Adelia Dinda Sani for The People of Asia.