Shafiq Rafat: From Afghan refugee to Belgrade artist

Meet Shafiq Rafat, an Afghan refugee and a civil engineer, who discovered his artistic talent after fleeing from his homeland to Serbia.

Shafiq Rafat’s paintings for his Images for Peace exhibition were supposed to be shown for one night only at Klub Petak in the Savamala district of Belgrade. As it happened, the event was such a success the exhibition organisers kept Rafat’s artwork on display for a week.

In Afghanistan, his home country, he was a civil engineer. Like thousands of his compatriots, Rafat, 28, says he was forced to flee war and violence and so became a refugee. After a treacherous three-month journey to Europe, he made it to Serbia with his family in August last year where his artistic talents were soon discovered.

On April 13 at 7pm, Rafat was waiting for the first visitors to the exhibition. Supported by the Refugees Foundation Serbia NGO, who discovered his talent during a workshop, the painter was nervously preparing for his work to be publicly judged for the first time. According to Edin Sinanovic, one of the founders of the NGO, the exhibition was a huge success.

“The first day of the exhibition was really busy. There were a lot of our friends coming to see and praise his work. As the exhibition lasted for seven days, we did not expect many people would show up in the following days. But we were wrong. A lot of people we never met or saw before came to see what it was all about.” 

When you enter the room, you immediately understand the meaning of the exhibition’s name. Some of the paintings are inspired by real photographs, such as the famous Afghan girl with green eyes by Steve McCurry, and others come straight from his imagination. He uses mainly oil on canvas and most of his artworks are portraits of women in Afghanistan.

“Since the moment I reached Serbia, I’m breathing again and I’m enjoying life more. I feel safer and I can draw. After the war in my country and the dangerous travel to get here, it has been a long time since I felt like that,” says Rafat.

The UN refugee agency estimates around 100 refugees make it to Serbia each day, far fewer than the 4,000 to 5,000 arriving daily during the height of the crisis in the summer of 2015. Most head straight for the Hungarian border, in hopes of crossing into Western Europe.

While many of those who stay in Serbia, mostly men, live in informal camps or abandoned sites such as the one next to the bus station in Belgrade, others are registered and live in state refugee camps outside the capital. 

Rafat, his wife and their three-year-old son are registered at Krnjaca camp, about 10 kilometres from Belgrade, on the other side of the river Danube. They reached Serbia in August 2016.

Since his arrival, the former engineer developed his passion for art, an interest that he never had the opportunity to give time to in his home country.

“I’m a hard worker. I’m not the kind of man who just sits and does nothing. So, when I arrived in Serbia, I decided to do something instead of just waiting. In Serbia, there are 8,000 refugees, every day they are coming here…But it is the first time a refugee is holding an exhibition here,” Rafat says.

A few months after he arrived, Rafat came into contact with the Refugees Foundation Serbia. Workers discovered his gift for drawing and helped him to improve by providing him with equipment and a space to work. They also organised the exhibition.

“This exhibition exceeded my expectations. People I didn’t know came here to see my work, they encouraged me and they liked my drawings,” he says.

Somewhat paradoxically, after having celebrated the successful opening of his exhibition, Rafat took the bus back to the refugee camp where he livesAccording to UNHCR, Krnjaca Asylum Centre – formerly used to house refugees and internally displaced persons following the Balkan wars of the 1990s – currently shelters about 1,250 refugees including 400 children. 

Encouraged by the foundation, Rafat drew around a dozen pictures, each representing a specific story or emotion. As he grew up in a country ravaged by war, his works represent suffering and loss and are pleas for peace, as well as containing messages of hope.

Through his work, Rafat tries to raise awareness about what is happening in Afghanistan and across the world. The painter represents mostly women to show how bad their situation is in his former country and to explain they have absolutely no rights.

“When you live in a war country, there is no space for art. When I was a child, I drew everywhere I could. Every time I was seeing a wall, I drew on it with the chalks I stole earlier from my teacher,” he recalls.

Since he arrived in Serbia, Rafat says he feels like he can develop to finally become the artist he always wanted to be. He knows that he’s going to be better and better with time, and has several plans to invest in himself by selling his drawings and organising more exhibitions.

Since the moment he managed to sell a drawing when he was fifteen, back in Afghanistan, his biggest dream was to be an artist. The painter hoped the war in his home country would eventually end. However, the situation did not change and Rafat says the Taliban began to threaten him because he worked for an American company.

After this, the engineer-turned-artist decided to flee with his family, leaving everything behind but his dreams about art.

“Serbia is a good country but here, finding jobs or something is difficult. I think I would feel even safer and more stable in countries such as Germany or Sweden,” he says.

While Rafat’s full exhibition is now closed two paintings are still on display at the same exhibition centre. His work can also be viewed on his Facebook page: Art Shafiq.

By Mathilde de Kerchove

(Balkan Insight, 15.05.2017)

This post is also available in: Italiano

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