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Shemaa Abdullah: Art has made me brave

Shortly after Shemaa Abdullah, 19, arrived in Scotland from Syria in 2017, a youth worker at her school referred her to a CashBack for Creativity project facilitated by the Arts and Communities Association.

Share the Love brought local young people from Indian, Syrian, Polish and Muslim communities in Dundee together to research and create a large-scale mixed media artwork which explores the contribution made by each culture to Dundee’s past and present. This was the first time Shemaa had taken part in an art class. In Syria art was not highly valued within the education system.

That’s what I want – to be seen and to be known.”

In fact, Art School, says Shemaa, was the place you were sent if you failed the exams in the equivalent of S3, whether you had any artistic talent or not.”

Participating in Share the Love, Shemaa discovered she did have talent. The project, however, provided more than an opportunity to develop it, she also found “a safe place where I could share my ideas and be accepted.”

She had been terrified about coming to the UK, having seen stories in the media of racism, especially against people who wore the hijab. “I wasn’t expecting people to be so accepting.”

As Shemaa’s confidence grew, she discovered another talent, as a facilitator and leader. She became a valued member of her school and the wider community, representing safety for younger Syrian refugees, who appreciated her kindness and quiet authority.

“Art,” she says “has made me brave. Yes, brave enough to take new steps.”

When the CashBack project ended, she took up a place on the Gateway to Dentistry course at the University of Dundee, but kept in contact with the Association and the artists and she made new contacts such as Lucy Binnie, a youth worker for Dundee Council, and pursued her vision for a youth group which would be a safe space for young refugees.

Lucy says that these young people would have struggled going directly into the kinds of youth groups she runs, and that what Shemaa has created is a bridge.

“I want them to feel they have someone to come to, someone who has been through the same experiences. That is my main purpose with the group. But they always say we want to be represented. We want people to know, yes, we are refugees, yes, we are Muslims or not, but we are really just like you guys.”

This is why the group are taking every opportunity to take part in local events. They recently participated in the Dundee Design Parade, designing Brazilian-inspired costumes. What they discovered, however, was that they needed to brand themselves, so they have spent one of their weekly sessions at the Douglas Library and Community Centre creating a logo. “Branding is about telling people who you are and becoming known,” says one of the group members, “that’s what I want – to be seen and to be known.”

Shemaa is hoping that an exhibition which will take place over 24-30 June at the Steeple Church in Dundee as part of the Refugee Festival Scotland will also challenge people’s perceptions of refugees, and she is delighted that some of the art produced during the CashBack for Creativity project Share the Love will be featured.

Images: Drew Farrell.

Shemaa features in 10 Years of CashBack for Communities - The Story So Far.

Refugee Festival Scotland takes place Thursday 20 – Sunday 30 June 2019.

This article was published on 24 Jun 2019