Syrian artist Essma Imady reflects on the refugee experience through the eyes of children

L-R: 'Harness,' image stills from interviews with children.

L-R: 'Harness,' image stills from interviews with children. Essma Imady

Artist Essma Imady’s daughter believes the sun sets in Syria.

Essma Imady: Thicker Than Water

Minneapolis Institute of Art

The misunderstanding happened when Imady tried explaining the time difference between Minnesota and Damascus, where their relatives still live, to her four-year-old daughter. It’s one of the few things the little girl “knows” about her mother’s homeland, which Imady fled in 2011, and remains too unstable to visit.

"Thicker Than Water," an exhibition opening Thursday at Mia’s MAEP gallery, is Imady’s attempt to make sense of what refugee children understand of war, relocation, and their parents’ roots.

Imady was studying art at Arab International University in Daraa when protests began erupting. Her then-boyfriend received a scholarship to do his Master’s degree at St. Cloud State University, so Imady, only 23 at the time, arranged to matriculate with him. The couple married that same year.

“When you move to a new place, there’s so much of feeling foreign, like even the way you move sometimes. You’re out of rhythm with the dominant norms and ways,” she says. “The transition was difficult. As a person who isn’t fond of change it would have been hard regardless, but the circumstances in which we left, and the worsening state of my home, made it that much harder.”

Imady also experienced survivor’s guilt, because the immigration process had been smoother in some ways thanks to her husband’s scholarship and the fact that her mother is American.

Hearing stories from friends back home made Imady feel helpless and hopeless. She processed these feelings through art, and enrolled in the MFA program at MCAD. Before classes began, however, she became pregnant and decided to wait until after the birth to begin.

Essma Imady

Essma Imady

After the birth of her daughter, Imady contemplated what it meant to be Syrian and American and “that strange space of identity,” she says. She wondered what future conversations with her daughter about Syria would be like.

When she visited friends in Istanbul two years ago, she had a revelation. “Talking to them, I felt like there was a lot of reflection and a lot of wisdom in even their younger children’s words and all of this kind of crystallized into this idea that I wanted to interview children,” she says. Her hope was to explore the gap between what children hear their parents saying about the refugee experience and what children understand.

After receiving a Jerome Foundation grant, Imady returned to Istanbul and started interviewing her friends’ children, as well as some children on the street. “I felt very honored. I think it’s a very special space when a child shares their dreams or their thoughts with you,” she says.

The interviews will show up in clips in the exhibition. What surprised her most in talking with kids was how important the mundane things are in people’s lives. “Most of what they wanted to talk about was how they ate cereal this morning and they made a new friend and they’re learning to play hockey,” she says. “The more larger scale things, like explaining to their friends that they’re refugees or where they’re from are less of a thing on their mind. It’s less of a thing for them than their parents.”

In addition to film footage of these interviews, Imady incorporates everyday, but altered, objects into the exhibition. The objects – a prayer book, a child harness – represent the anxieties surrounding the conversations between refugee parents and their children and how the conversations crystallize in the kids’ minds and consciousness.

One piece, titled Comfort Object, is a teddy bear that’s been stuffed with a mother’s weight in lead. It represents the way parents sometimes try to comfort children about stressors the children never had in the first place, such as news of a bombing in the city where a beloved grandmother is. A child might not necessarily have connected the violence to the relative’s home if not for the “comforting” from the parent.

A piece called Receiving Blanket combines soft, touchable material with an image of twisted metal to resemble “the sharp edges of a broken home,” she says.

Imady’s nuclear family remains intact, but older generations of relatives are still in Damascus. Though Imady’s daughter talks to them on the phone, Syria seems like a “far-off magical place” that she has yet to see with her own eyes.

“I’ve told her, ‘You’re from Syria, too,’ but she doesn’t really believe me,” Imady says. “She realizes she’s different to a degree from her preschool friends. She speaks Arabic, she has family members in this far-off magical place where the sun sets, but that’s really it.”

Imady did take her daughter to Beirut, Lebanon, to meet her grandparents for the first time, but they didn’t cross the border into Syria. “I’m just worried because the security is bad and there’s still some bombs falling on even the capital, which is where her grandparents live. It’s too much of a risk,” Imady says.

The artist acknowledges that she can’t change the world or stop war, but she can create art about it and thereby bring the issues to the forefront. She hopes the exhibition will plant a seed in viewers’ minds about the commonality of human suffering and parental anxieties.

“Not just people from wars have trauma or family difficulties or hard stories that they have to tell their children one day,” she says. “This is more or less a universal experience and it manifests for different people in different ways.”

She doesn’t aim to incite viewers’ empathy, per se, but inspire something “deeper and more solid and less fleeting,” she says. “I’m a big believer in children being this strong and beautiful force in this world. Their dreams are no less important than ours just because ours are more well thought out. They’re more important because they have more magic in them, and more belief, and hope.”


"Essma Imady: Thicker Than Water”
MAEP Gallery at Mia
The opening reception is 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, March 15; the show is on display through June 24.