Artist Hannah Rose Thomas is using her talents as a painter to record some of the refugees she has encountered through her charity work over the years.
Thomas studied Arabic and History and has led a number of art-based humanitarian projects around the world, including in Jordan.
Through her work, Thomas aims to raise awareness around the plight of refugees and wants to humanise individuals fleeing war.
Visiting Iran when she was 18, she was blown away by the beauty of the country and how welcoming the people were. She was shocked to see the reports on the country two weeks later following uprisings after the 2009 elections.
“It made me realise how the media often distorts things and we can’t look at the people in that place through that lens of the media, which can make it feel that extreme, and then that encourages that fear of people in a foreign place,” she told Business Insider.
This realisation has led Thomas to paint a series of portraits of refugees to try and change the way we perceive differences and inject some humanity into the debate. “Each refugee I’ve met has a remarkable story of courage and resilience. It was to share their stories that I have painted their portraits,” Thomas said.
Thomas has worked on projects with the UNHCR and UNICEF and is an ambassador for the UK-based charity One Young World.
Business Insider talked to Thomas to find out what inspires her art, and how her work and travels have affected her. Some of her answers have been shortened for clarity.
Barbara Tasch: What inspired you to study Arabic and History?
Hannah Rose Thomas: Ever since I was really young, I’ve always just had this yearning to travel to these far-flung places and understand those whose life and culture are really different from ours here in the West. I think Arabic and History has been a really amazing way to get to do that.
History has enabled me to understand the path of lots of different places as I focused on world history, and Arabic is such a complex and fascinating language and also a really unusual one and I think that’s what drew me to it. Language is a really good way to bridge the cultural barrier, but particularly in the Middle East it can feel quite non-semantical. I think it’s a really unique one in that respect. The response when you speak with people in Arabic is incredible. People are always so shocked that you have taken the time to learn their language and you get a level of the culture and the people there that is very unexpected I think.
BT: Does your study of the Arabic language influence your art?
HRT: Very much. So in some of the paintings you can see that I tried to draw in something of the beauty of Islamic art and often poetry, and I think this is kind of motivated by a real desire to somehow express and celebrate the really rich cultural heritage there is in the Middle East. I think we lose sight of it and forget because the news reports are always focused on war so it’s a way to kind of remember and to celebrate that because there is so much about the Middle East that is incredible. And their art is very, very beautiful.
BT: What motivated you to work with refugees?
HRT: I was spending my year abroad as part of my degree and in Jordan, because they got over one million refugees, you can’t help being aware of it as you’re surrounded by it — whereas here we have this distance from it. And I started volunteering with a charity that was helping and doing activities with the children in the Zaatari camp. But then UNHCR approached me to ask if I’d organise an art project for World Refugee Day to transform refugee tents into works of art because they are such a powerful symbol of displacement. And that all just came about while I was there… and I had such a strong desire to do something or to use my gift for creativity to help, which is why i got in touch with the UNHCR.
BT: Can you tell me more about the tent project?
HRT: The aim of it was to turn the refugees’ tents — which are in themselves such a powerful symbol of displacement — into beautiful works of art to be exhibited for World Refugee Day, and they’ve travelled around the world since. I had to take on the organisation of the project, which at the time was quite overwhelming as I was only 22 and it was daunting as I was going to remote locations in Jordan, just me alone with a UNHCR vehicle and the tents and I had to turn up at these refugee centres in northern Jordan and — albeit they had groups of kids ready to come — I think coming as a woman talking about the project was also quite difficult because of the men who run the centres, but if you go there with the art and creativity even they will get involved.
There was quite a lot of chaos at the time and a lot of laughter and paint everywhere. But I was just amazed by how everyone, young and old wanted to be involved… and was so deeply enriched and touched by the experience and the laughter and the love I experienced from the people I met and how women would in particular open their hearts to me and tell me the stories of where they’ve come from, particularly because I have the language and was coming there as a woman and just how touched they were that I was there as a woman from England who’s learned the language and who’s an artist and running this project and come all the way to see them so they didn’t feel forgotten I think that was pretty much what they felt… that their stories were being heard so they don’t feel forgotten knowing the tents would be around the world.
There was very much that sense that they had felt forgotten in many ways but this was a reminder that people did care.
BT: Can you give some examples of what people drew on the tents?
HRT: There were frequently depicted images of soldiers, dead bodies, and destroyed houses and it was just really difficult to see really young children painting these images because it’s so hard to comprehend the horrors that they have witnessed. That young children have been through this, that it is what they’ve seen.
I also found that one of the most common themes was home for them, so they painted their homes in Syria, which was again expressing their desire to return to ordinary life that they knew in Syria. An ordinary life that looks a lot like ours too, just going to school, working in the garden with their grandparents… things that everyone would do across the world. We often have a different idea of the Middle East but we’re not as different as we imagine
BT: Was there a difference between what adults and children painted?
HRT: I think the children’s work was much more raw, what they depicted often very kind of… again the images of soldiers and dead bodies and destroyed houses… and it was children painting these images… The adults’ were less emotionally charged.
BT: How do you think that art can help bring about harmony and peace?
HRT: I am just really interested in how art can be used as a form of advocacy and I think through the portraits and also combining them with the refugee art works in the exhibitions there is obviously the idea to somehow convey a sense of humanising the crisis… I think sometimes we feel that when we are confronted with a global crisis of this scale — over 65 million who have been forced to flee their home — you can lose sight of the people who have been affected. And their personal stories are just lost and shrouded by statistics and I think art enables us to recognise a common humanity that, particularly in this current global climate, which with Trump and with Brexit lead to a political climate that accentuates differences and fear of people who are different and of the refugee crisis in general. Somehow art can enable us to connect with people from across the world and engage with their emotions because we can see through creativity that we are all human.
BT: Was that one of the aims of your portrait series, to show humanity?
HRT: Very much. It’s to show the humans, to share the stories. The greatest privilege of the whole of the projects and of the places I’ve been to, the refugee camps in Jordan and Calais, is each of the refugees that I have met and how each of them has this story of suffering but also remarkable resilience. I think I also have a unique position as an Arabic speaker and an artist, which enables me to cross cultural and linguistic barriers and to share their stories through art and to paint the stories of those who don’t have a voice.
I’m really interested in how art can be used to express compassion for those in need, and… if you go to the portrait gallery and you go around and it’s normally the elite and the wealthy but also majority Western and white and men normally. So the idea is to paint the portrait for those who many would consider among the least in society. It’s to kind of turn that whole genre on its head in a way to make you think about how you perceive people who are different and to show again common humanity and celebrate it.
BT: Is there someone you painted who really stuck with you?
HRT: The portrait that I will always remember the most, and that many people have been moved to tears when they saw it in the exhibition, is a painting of Abdul Rahman. I met Abdul while I was volunteering in the Calais Jungle last December as an Arabic translator in a makeshift clinic there and Abdul Rahman came in and he shared his story with me and I translated it for everyone who was there. He spoke about how he lost his whole family in an airstrike in Syria and then made the treacherous journey by boat and then by foot across Europe to get to Calais because his uncle lived in London and he was hoping to get across to be reunited with him. It was his last relative.
He was alone and vulnerable and in the jungle you are really aware of how dangerous a place it is, particularly for young unaccompanied minors because of all the mafia that are there and the people trafficking that goes on. He was also highly vulnerable and traumatised. That portrait I painted immediately as I came back from that first experience of being in the jungle last Decembe,r and I tried to convey something of his trauma, but also it’s quite a dark image because I was just so shocked by Calais. This is just an hour away from us, yet the experience as a place… it was just a very overwhelming place to go to, and very different from refugee camps in Jordan which were all organised by UNHCR. They are highly managed efficiently and also they are watched by the government as well, they have the army there to keep it safe, but Calais is by contrast a slum. It’s now been destroyed but the conditions were inhumane.
BT: What experiences marked you the most during your travels?
HRT: One of the most difficult aspects of that year spent in Jordan was the loneliness and isolation that you experience being in a foreign culture and how you’re often misunderstood just because of the cultural differences, and how alienating that can feel. Although the first five months were very difficult and then you get past that and you really build a family and kind of feel rooted in the culture and you get that base, but the initial beginning was hard.
I think that really gave me a glimpse of what it must be like for the refugees as well when they arrive in a foreign land or in unknown places, what it’s like… that alienation. But also when you experience that misunderstanding or being judged for your race or your culture, how difficult that is as well, I think that was one of the most difficult parts of the experience. But also the stories and the secondary trauma that you do pick up inevitably working in these situations and going to refugee camps.
The most rewarding part was definitely the people that I’ve met. Both in Africa and also the Middle East in refugee camps it’s the people I’ve met and how my life has been enriched unimaginably by these people I have met and by the cultures that I’ve been in contact with and experienced, and how that influenced my art, but also just my outlook on life and people.
Thomas is currently doing a Masters and will go to northern Iraq this summer for an art project with Yazidi women who have escaped ISIS.