Tuesday 10 August 2021

Tears of Gold

Hannah Rose Thomas

Presented in partnership with the UNESCO Chair for Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts, the Chaplaincy at the University of Glasgow, and Interfaith Scotland.  

Research has shown, with a constancy, that when resources are scarce it is the most vulnerable and marginalised people who will suffer first. In conflict over resources – land and water – it’s very hard to draw a causal line between forced migration and climate chaos, but what we do know from past environmental degradation is that it has produced forced displacement. We come face to face with the grief and loss of bodily integrity, with the integrity of human lives lived within the environment, and are offered, through portraiture, a window into a future world. 

In June 2021, artist and University of Glasgow PhD student Hannah Rose Thomas presented an exhibition of Tears Of Gold at the University of Glasgow Chapel and presented the following speech.

Tears of Gold: Stories of Women Displaced from Home, Hannah Rose Thomas

Thank you, I’m absolutely delighted to be with you this evening, and for the generous support of the University of Glasgow Chapel, UNESCO RILA, Interfaith Scotland and the Dear Green Bothy for making this exhibition possible.

While living in Jordan as an Arabic student in 2014, I had an opportunity to organise art projects with Syrian refugees for UNHCR – an experience which opened my eyes to the magnitude of the refugee crisis confronting our world today. 

I would like to begin with a poem ‘Diary of a Girl Away from Home’ was written by a young Syrian refugee named Fatima. It is written in Arabic on the piece of artwork behind me here.

She poignantly writes:

‘Don’t lift my pillow,
I hid under it my tears in times of sadness
And creatively created many dreams.
Don’t change the order of the books on my bookshelf,
On their pages notes I have written that no one will understand like I do.
As for my desk, don’t touch it,
But leave it with the mess I make while I study.
Please keep my traces in my beloved home,
I will be reunited with it soon.’

For the UNHCR art projects, we turned recycled refugee tents – a powerful symbol of displacement – into beautiful pieces of artwork, in order to raise awareness for the plight of refugees.

The theme for one of the refugee tents was Hope. I asked the Syrian refugee children to paint their hopes and dreams for the future on the tent.  The most common image drawn was the home – expressing their longing to return back to the life they knew in Syria.

At this time I began to paint the portraits of some of the refugees I had met, to show the people behind the global crisis, whose personal stories are otherwise often shrouded by statistics. It was to share their stories that I began painting their portraits.

Since then I have had the privilege of organising art projects for Yezidi women who escaped ISIS captivity in Iraqi Kurdistan; Rohingya refugees in Bangladeshi camps and survivors of sexual violence at the hands of Boko Haram and Fulani militants in Northern Nigeria. 

For the projects in Iraqi Kurdistan and Nigeria, I taught the women to paint their self-portraits as a way to share their stories with the rest of the world. For many it was the first time in their lives that they had drawn or painted before. 

The art projects created a safe place for the women to share their stories. Telling our stories helps individuals to integrate traumatic memories and gradually begin to heal and to reclaim their dignity. Language is often inadequate to convey the experiences of trauma in conflict. However, the  arts can help unlock this process and give a new form of communication to address the silence and unspeakable pain.

Many survivors of unspeakable violence experience a profound sense of powerlessness, an overwhelming and deeply rooted feeling that they do not have a voice. Thus one of the primary needs of survivors is to feel like a person again, to rediscover their own sense of personhood and voice. The hope was that these art projects would create a space that honours the experience and the women’s stories, and therefore enable a restoration of dignity.

As John Paul Lederach writes “art and finding our way back to humanity are connected.” 

In August 2017 I travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan for an art project with a group of Yezidi women who had escaped ISIS captivity with a clinical psychologist, having raised the funds with the help of a wonderful Non-profit called the Knitting Circle. 

It was the third anniversary of the genocide and the fall of Sinjar; an event so traumatic for the Yezidis that several of the women had marked the date in tattoos on their skin. 

You may recall the headlines in 2014 when the plight of the Yezidi’s became global news; with thousands stranded on Mount Sinjar, having fled ISIS. Those unable to flee were taken captive. One of the Yezidi women who took part in the art project Hadiya had been sold to 12 different men during her captivity. Hadiya and I are the same age – 25 years old at that time – and yet how different our lives have been. 

The project was based at the Jinda Centre – Jinda is Kurdish for New Life – a rehabilitation facility in Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan.  

Most of the women chose to paint portraits of themselves in Yezidi traditional dress of white robes. This expression of identity is important considering the dehumanization they endured. Many painted their tears in gold to convey their grief for loved ones lost or still in captivity.  

One young mother Basse painted a haunting image of an ISIS soldier separating her from her six-year-old daughter, she said ‘They took her hands out of my hands, and put her into the hands of the enemy…. every day and night I imagine what Daesh are doing to her’. Basse escaped but her daughter did not. 

The women also asked whether I would paint their portraits, which felt an incredible privilege to be trusted to share their stories in this way. Following my return from Iraqi Kurdistan, I poured my heart into painting. I hoped to capture something of the women’s strength, resilience and dignity – to show that these women have not been defined by what they have suffered.  

For these portraits I chose the sacred imagery, gold leaf and tempera painting techniques that were used for paintings of the Virgin Mary – the Mater Dolorosa, Mother of Sorrows –  in the early Renaissance. As tradition tells us, Mary, like these Yezidi women, also knew what it means to be poor, oppressed, a refugee. And for her heart to be pierced with grief at the loss of her beloved Son.  

These paintings, like those of the Mater Dolorosa, seek to emotionally engage the viewer and inspire compassion, and are also meditations on the universal human experience of suffering. In these portraits we see a glimpse of the Yezidi women’s unspeakable grief but it is also a reminder that we all face grief, sorrow and loss  at different times in life. We are not so different; we are inextricably connected to one another. 

The purpose of the project was twofold – it was both therapeutic and also for advocacy – to empower the women’s voices to be heard in places of influence in the Global Norther through their self-portraits. All too often their stories of suffering remain unseen and unheard.

In September 2018 I had the privilege of travelling to Northern Nigeria for an art project, part of an Open Doors trauma-healing programme for Christian women, survivors of sexual violence at the hands of militant Fulani herdsmen of the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram.  

Each of the women who took part in the project had a heart-rending story. The hope was to create a safe space for them to be seen, heard and accepted and to begin to process their trauma. By the end of the art project each of the women had painted a powerful self-portrait. For the finishing touch sewing vibrant Nigerian fabric onto their designs.  

Like the Yezidi women, they also chose to paint glistening tears of gold. 

Conflict leaves many wounds, but perhaps the biggest of all is the stigma that so many survivors like Charity face. This additional burden following devastating assaults, is almost too painful to contemplate. 

One woman Charity, who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram and held captive for three years, said “I can recount three different times that I was beaten by my husband because I came back with a child. I have told him ‘I haven’t done it out of my own will. I was forced and there was nothing I could do.” Her pain was magnified when her husband beat her and rejected her baby Rahila : she faces daily abuse, rejection and isolation in her community due to the stigma. 

On our last day together for the art project Charity said, “I am so happy. I have never held a pencil in my life before, and this is the first time I have been able to write my name and even to draw my face!” The art project is a drop in the ocean when I think of the trauma that the women have faced. Nevertheless, the simple process of painting self-portraits helped the women to find their voice, to know their worth and affirm their identity.  

The women said that sharing their stories together helped them to realise for the first time that they were not to blame and did not need to be ashamed. Telling our stories helps to integrate traumatic memories and gradually begin to heal and to reclaim our dignity after we have been hurt. Desmond Tutu explains, ‘it is our shared humanity, our shared losses, and our shared grief that ultimately allow us to reconnect again with the world around us. We are harmed together and we heal together.’

By the end of the project the women were all laughing, dancing and singing together; a complete transformation from our first day. 

To return to the theme of home that I began the talk with. John Paul Lederach writes that ‘Home often serves as a relational metaphor of feeling surrounded by love, as sense of well-being and unconditional acceptance.’ However, violence destroys this feeling and the capacity to be oneself without mistrust or pretention; it destroys a sense of at-homeness.’  The insecurity experienced by survivors of violence and displacement ‘poses a challenge of how to recover a basic sense of trust in the outer social landscape and the inner personal journey.’ 

I believe that the arts can help to bring healing and restoration.  They can create a space of hospitality to attend and to bear witness to the suffering of another. There is nothing more valuable we can give to another than the full recognition of his or her humanity.

The French Philosopher Simone Weil affirms that this ‘capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle.’ Indeed, she writes, ‘it is a miracle’ for this ‘restores [them] to his or her humanity.’ 

Related event

Tears of Gold: Stories of Women Displaced from Home