Kennewick refugee finds beauty, connection to her Iraqi brother in art

Years ago, before the violence and the fear, before their family was separated by war and an ocean, Samar Abdulrahman would watch her older brother paint.

Omar was a talented artist, and Samar — she’s nine years younger — wanted to be like him.

Turns out she is.

Now 22 and living in Kennewick, Samar creates vivid, colorful worlds from paint, canvas and a brush.

She coaxes pieces of wood, hunks of glass and mounds of wax into beautiful and special things.

Art is an outlet, a way to express herself. It also makes her feel closer to Omar.

She loves art, “Maybe because he loves it,” she said. “Maybe because he’s not with me.”

Maybe someday he will be.

In the meantime, Samar is studying and working and creating.

She’s making a life for herself in a place apart from her brother, while still keeping him close to her heart.

‘You don’t have anything’

Samar grew up in Baghdad, Iraq. Her father, Saad, was a barber and had a salon.

The family lived in a home with a garden. Samar went to school. She was happy.

“(I remember) my cousins, when we would stay up and talk. My friends, when they would come to the house,” she said.

She remembers Omar being funny, making her laugh. Once, when he was in college studying art, he painted a mural at the family house.

“I have a lot of memories,” Samar said. “These are the good ones. I don’t want to remember the bad things.”

The bad things include bombs, violence, almost losing her dad.

After the Iraqi Army was dismantled, a lawlessness reigned in Baghdad, and armed groups began kidnapping businessmen to extort ransom.

When Samar was about 13, her dad was taken, she said. He escaped after a few days, gathered his family and fled.

Like many trying to escape violence in Iraq, they crossed the border into Syria, spending three years there.

Eventually, Samar and her parents, her older sister and her younger brother were granted entry into the U.S. as refugees.

Omar, the eldest child, was already an adult and had to stay behind, Samar said.

It was difficult — so difficult — for the family to split up, she said.

“My mom is really sad about him. My dad, he thinks a lot (about him), because he’s over there,” Samar said.

At the same time, they faced their own challenges on their refugee journey to Kennewick.

Samar remembers long plane rides, the jarring experience of arriving in a brand new place, with nothing.

“We never knew, will we have a house? A bed? We never know,” she said.

The Tri-Cities office of World Relief was there when the family arrived, helping them settle in.

“When we go to the apartment (they set up), it seems really nice. We have a bed, we have stuff. We have a lot of stuff. At that time, I feel really good,” she said. “When you have hard time (like we did) — everything goes away. You don’t have anything.”

‘To be happy and strong’

Samar didn’t know English when she first came to the Tri-Cities, but it didn’t take her too long to learn.

She enrolled at Kamiakin High School in Kennewick and then went on to Columbia Basin College.

She’s now a student at Washington State University Tri-Cities, with plans to go into interior design.

Art is a big part of her life. She has a large online fan base, with many followers.

She showed her work for the first time last fall, at the Richland Seniors Association annual holiday bazaar.

Betty Norton, who coordinates the show, said Samar’s table was popular, filled with beautiful pieces.

Norton bought one of her hand-painted candles, calling it unusual and lovely.

She saw in Samar something special.

“She did really well. I hope she tries several different bazaars,” Norton said.

Samar’s work is striking. One painting, hanging in her family’s apartment, features an elegant woman with flowing hair and dangling earrings. The bottom of the painting has colorful buildings — the kind that used to populate Baghdad. The piece also features several eye-shaped symbols to bring good luck.

In another painting, a woman in a flowing dress kneels at a river, sending off a small vessel filled with lit candles. The woman is making a wish.

“(In the U.S.), it’s a penny in the water. It’s the same thing here, except with candles,” Samar said.

What is her own wish? Something she might send across a river in the form of a flickering candle?

“To be happy and strong. To be happy and safe.”

“I will show him everything”

Although she grew up in Iraq, Samar — who has become a U.S. citizen — considers the Tri-Cities her home.

She loves the area — that it’s on the small side, that she can walk around without fear. She’s made friends and she makes art.

She has dreams for the future. Interior design is another way she expresses herself, and she imagines making a career in it.

“I want to make a story, but not writing something. I want to make a story of furniture (or home decor),” she said. “This is what I want.”

And, of course, she wants Omar to come here someday. That’s her deepest wish, she said.

They will laugh together. Maybe they’ll paint together.

“When he comes here, we will do works together. I’m really sure he will be happy about that,” she said. “When he comes here, I will show him everything.”

Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529, @SaraTCHerald

The local office of the nonprofit World Relief helps resettle refugees — like Samar and her family — from around the world.

The organization can always use financial donations, as well as items from blankets to pots and pans.

For more information on how to help, go to worldrelieftricities.org.