Fearing for his life, the only option to safety for Salam was to leave everything behind in Iraq to become “another refugee”, desperately searching to find a less volatile place to call home.
“I created this to show people how innocent the eyes of children are. They know nothing about politics or immigration, yet they have to suffer through this tough life.”
However it was through his darker times that Salam Noh, now 30, discovered a talent for painting. Although he had a “thirst for education” during his college years in Iraq, there was one particular skill he had never attempted to master, painting.
“The arts were never encouraged in my country, as it is not valued in our culture. So, I had never even thought about becoming an artist,” he said. It was only when he found himself “bored out of [his] mind” on a refugee camp in Greece in 2016, that his artistic journey began.
Since then, Salam has moved to France and exhibited his work in countries all over Europe; including Switzerland, France and Germany. His canvases sell between €250 and €1,200 (£219-£1,052).
His use of bright, bold colours and abstract style on white canvas juxtapose the darkness behind his inspiration; his way of communicating the refugee crisis to the rest of the world.
During his time living in the camp, memories of the traumatic experiences that he had encountered often replayed in his thoughts. Sometimes, it was at his lowest points in life that Salam produced the most impressive pieces of art.
He named one of his paintings Seeking for a Life after his younger brother Sahir Noh, wrote a heartfelt poem to go alongside it.
“Seeking for a Life”
Children, young, old and innocent families
Running from war, bombs and injustice of life
Paddling their boat into the sea, hoping to reach new land
Where they hope to find peace, justice and a helping hand
In the middle of the sea where the boat stops working and people start screaming in the name of humanity
The water is pouring onto the passengers and the boat is rocking violently
Not knowing who might die
And who might live
“I decided to start painting how I was feeling when I was thinking back to my family being stuck on a small boat in the middle of the sea. I wanted to express how frightening and hard that was for us all,” said Salam.
Sahir, aged 21, lived with Salam in Iraq and took the risky journey to safety together. They recognised their common flair for creativity and inevitably decided to collaborate as artists.
Growing up, Salam lived in a little Yazidi town of Northern Iraq called Ba’adra, along with 14 other family members. He travelled a total of four hours per day to attend university and was “excited” to be two months short of graduating, before his life “took a turn for the worst.”
“It was like an army camp. No electricity, no food and no water.”
The Islamic State (ISIS) moved closer towards his town, situated between Mosul and Kurdistan; it was far too dangerous for Salam to stay behind. “They would kill me because I am not Muslim,” says Salam.
Yazidis are a Kurdish-speaking ethnic minority group, mostly living in remote areas of Northern Iraq. They are often recognised for strongly practising their religion through oral traditions, such as singing and spoken word. Muslims and Christians have been known to accuse Yazidis of being worshippers of the devil, leading to the catastrophic Yazidi genocide in 2014.
Less than three weeks before Salam fled his home, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report, highlighting the severe impact and ongoing threat to civilians from the conflict in Iraq.
“At least 18,802 civilians killed and another 36,245 wounded between January 1, 2014 and October 31, 2015.” Salam’s voice cracked as he told me about the moment he got home from university to find his family planning how they would flee their home for good. His town was under threat and there was no time for hesitation.
“I was shocked. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. There were tears in my eyes that day I left university because I knew I was about to give up on my dream of graduating.”The colourful, abstract painting named Our Dreams is about fighting against all odds and never giving up on your dreams. Salam wanted to shine a positive light on his tough experience and encourage others in similar situations to “never let go of hope”.
“I thought that if I could make it across the sea to another country, then I could achieve my dreams… I am now one step away from doing that.”
Catherina Kahane, co-founder of the charity Echo, emphasised the importance of encouraging people in refuge to express their distress through various forms of art, including painting and music:
“From the moment that these people set foot on the Greek island, they are given a number and they are treated as numbers. [Most] art-making is opposite of this,” she told us. “You regain and recover your subjectivity, your very own voice, you tell your own story, paint your own picture and express your inner and outer self.”
Echo100plus, as it’s also known, is a registered Austrian charity that was set up by a group of friends who decided to take action when the intensity of the social and economic crisis became apparent in Greece.
Shortly after his arrival in March 2016, Salam was gutted to find out the government had closed European borders; leaving over 50,000 refugees stranded in Greece.
However, he is “extremely grateful” for the international volunteers at Echo who worked “tirelessly” on the ground at the Ritsona refugee camp to improve the poor living conditions, by distributing food, clothes and living supplies on a daily basis.
Niko Spiegelfeld, aged 27, volunteered for over three months with Echo during the spring of 2016, when he became “fed up” of watching the news and “frustrated” that he was not doing much about it.
“I felt so cruel, as if I didn’t care about drowning people, so I found myself in Ritsona trying to help,” said Niko. “Some refugees were using coffee to make a brown colour to paint with.”
This gave Niko and his fellow Echo volunteer, Ryan, the inspiration to buy some art supplies and encourage the refugees to add some colour to the grey walls that surrounded them.
“The art they made was great! We had no idea we would make such a big impact. When living in such a shitty situation, [art] is one of the only ways they can escape from the moment.”
Since Echo provided paints and brushes, Salam’s older brother came up with the idea of everyone painting a mural on one of Echo’s warehouse walls. It was a great success, Salam has never looked back and has now fully dedicated his time to mastering his craft.
“Every day in the camp felt like a year. There was nothing to do but too much time to think about the bad things happening in Iraq.”
He recalls each tent being around one metre long and sometimes it would have to sleep up to eight people: “It was like an army camp. No electricity, no food and no water.”
Although Salam would say “Iraq is not my country, my country is where I feel safe,” he could not help but feel hurt when looking back to what they went through to get to safe land.
“Our house, the house that we had built with our own hands and which we had worked on for two years, day and night. We lived there for 14 years and it was the only thing we had. Now we had to sell it.”Determined to find a reliable smuggler who would take them through the safest route to the next country, Salam recalls his father selling all of their possessions in the family house for dirt-cheap, as they fell increasingly under pressure to flee their hometown.
His whole family attempted to scramble as much money together as possible to pay off the smuggler, as well as to save for the long journey ahead.
But, his father eventually succumbed to an agreement to hand over their house; so long as the smuggler promised to take them safely to another country in Europe.
Salam dealt with these “painful” memories by painting when he felt emotionally vulnerable. “It’s like you have this feeling inside of you, and then you pick it up” said Salam, as he described the raw emotions lets go when he paints.
His painting Give us land portrays a family, young and old, searching for a place to call home; one free from war and terror.
‘Give us land’
Away from bombs, ruins and fires,
From hunger, violence and fears. Mom! Dad!
We do not know politics or economics! We need your love!
We need your care!
Don’t build walls, boundaries or borders, help us to build a future that our parents haven’t had…
Give us freedom, peace,
Hope and a new land.
Despite giving up their house in the hope that their journey would be as safe as possible, Salam felt himself losing grip of hope when 15 of his family members were told to squeeze onto what he believed was a two-man boat.
“My sister was very sick. It was hard as there was no space and it was raining, and if the police caught us, we would all go to jail.”
The journey saw them cramming their bodies into tiny boats in the middle of the night, and then breaking down in the middle of the ocean with a baby.
“It was black. The only thing you could hear were waves. We were frustrated because we were back to square one.”
They had no choice but to take the riskier route to Greece, if they wanted to stand any chance to make it to safety.
“[ISIS] were kidnapping the women and children and killing any man that was not Muslim back in Iraq. There was no going back now.”
Salam’s painting Silence is about the innocence of children that are victims of war. “I created this to show people how innocent the eyes of children are. They know nothing about politics or immigration, yet they have to suffer through this tough life,” he said.
Gentle but passionate with his words, Salam’s mission as an artist is to not only create powerful pieces of art, but to ensure that refugees stories are heard and to emphasise that “innocent people should never be silenced”.
In reaction to his brother’s painting, Sahir Noh wrote:
Shivering from the cold night in March 2016, Salam finally arrived on dry land in Greece, along with the rest of his family and the one possession that he owned; his mobile phone. “We were all crying and shouting with happiness. Six days later, we were taken to a refugee camp in Ritsona.”
“Silence is the biggest crime against humanity, Be the reason someone feels seen, heard, and supported by the whole universe.”
The asylum centre in Greece promised that the refugee camp would be “really good” and told them that after one month of staying in the tents, they would be able to go to whichever country they wished.
But, to his disappointment, it didn’t provide most of the basic living needs and he ended up living there for over nine months before he was able to leave.
Regardless of whatever bad news or challenges were thrown in his path, Salam persevered, staying true to his belief of being optimistic, and focussing on the positives in any given situation.
“We would spend all day playing music around a table we built in the middle of the camp. Lots of people would join in. My family was the first family to come to the camp and not run away. It felt good to see the camp grow from just us, to 800 people in less than one year.”
Salam continues to portray the pain and suffering that thousands of refugees incur when fleeing their war-torn country. But he is also determined to inspire others that even success can come out of the ugliest situations.
If you are interested in working with Salam Noh, or purchasing his art, please visit: https://www.brotherlyart.net