Images of a Refugee Artist – Fatima Matar

Instead of relaying every event that led me to seek asylum in the United States, let me paint you images of my journey with words.

One: It’s 1990. I’m ten years old, hiding in a chicken coop, afraid an Iraqi soldier will snatch me. It’s a dark, cold February night, and my heart is throbbing violently. “What if they find me? What if they take me?” For the past seven months, my family and I have been living in the basement  of a house that isn’t ours, keeping safe from the bombs. I don’t know if I’ll live, I don’t know if I’ll ever go to school again. Towards the end of the war, as the Iraqi troops are retreating from Kuwait, news circles that Iraqi soldiers are going house to house taking girls. My parents make me hide in a chicken coop lest they take me.

Figure 1 Title of Painting: "Freedom" By Fatima Matar
Figure 1 Title of Painting: “Freedom” By Fatima Matar

Two: I’m twenty. I close the aluminum door behind me and promise myself I’ll never see another therapist. But for many years to come I knocked on other doors, different colored doors, made from various types of wood, with all kinds of knobs, and once even a virtual door, when I saw a therapist through Skype. Each room has a different smell, and a different colored sofa. But the faces, the eyes, the pencils scratching on yellow pads behind these doors, all wanted the same thing: to dig deeper, to find the roots and claw them out, “so I can move on,” they said, in different languages, and gestures, and levels of sincerity. I talk to them about the unhappy troubled home I grew up in, my parents’ anger and violence towards me, towards each other, the tight control over my life, the abusive father that was replaced with an abusive husband, the shackling misogyny, and threatening patriarchy of my culture.

Figure 2 Title of Painting: “Why Do You Hold On To The Past” By Fatima Matar
Figure 2 Title of Painting: “Why Do You Hold On To The Past” By Fatima Matar

Three: I’m a thirty-eight year old woman, I have a thirteen-year-old daughter. I teach law at Kuwait University. Years ago I completed my Master’s and Ph.D. in law in the UK. I believe in democracy, in freedom of speech, and in equal gender rights. I am passionate and rebellious, I want to change the way everything is. I am furious at how poorly women are treated in Islam, I am angry that my country oppresses the Stateless, tens of thousands of longtime Kuwaiti inhabitants deprived of citizenship, health, education, and work. I protest with the Stateless. I advocate for the LGBTQ in a country where homosexuality is still illegal. I denounce the growing phenomenon of honor killing (femicide). I organize protests against the Kuwaiti government’s decision to ban over five thousand books. I condemn the Kuwaiti Sheikh, I call him corrupt and hold him responsible for the tragedy of the Stateless, and I call for political and social change. I face prosecution.

Figure 3 Title of Painting: "Show Me Your Soul" By Fatima Matar
Figure 3 Title of Painting: “Show Me Your Soul” By Fatima Matar

Four: I’m in an austere courtroom. There are dark mahogany furnishings, a judge’s elevated bench, and a large plaque in the shape of a scale hangs on the wall, with the Quran verse ‘and when you judge between people, you must judge with justice’ written underneath. All the air in the room sucked by the ominous silence, only the gentle sound of prayer beads bumping against each other creates an eerie rhythm, the way a ticking clock threatens that time is running out. My heart, a powerful fist pushing against my chest. The slightest inaudible whispers from spectators stirs and agitates me. There are several people from the press, and a few social media trolls who want to be the first to tweet about this: the first Kuwaiti woman to be tried and imprisoned for her politically controversial opinions. All I can think of is “what will happen to my daughter when I’m in jail?” The charges brought against me are defamation, spreading rumors with the intention of undermining state security, and blasphemy: all felonies.

Figure 4 Title of Painting: "Tribe and Honor" By Fatima Matar
Figure 4 Title of Painting: “Tribe and Honor” By Fatima Matar

Five: It’s late 2018. I am in O’Hare Airport with my daughter. We came to the United States seeking asylum. The Department of Homeland Security detains us in a six-by-six foot room, with two dirty gym mattresses on the floor for us to sleep on. There are three security cameras on the ceiling monitoring us from different angles, and glaring, eye-watering fluorescent lights we aren’t allowed to turn off. There is one dirty public toilet but no showers. They took our cell phones and our luggage. For four days I ask the officers who come and go at different shifts when we will be released. They respond in anger and disdain that we won’t be released, we’ll only be moved to another cell in a detention center. My daughter and I are terrified that we will be separated.

Figure 5 Title of Painting: "When You Overcome Your Fears" By Fatima Matar
Figure 5 Title of Painting: “When You Overcome Your Fears” By Fatima Matar

Six: It’s early 2019. I am standing at the chain-link fence, my fingers curl around the diamond-shaped wire. On the other side of this detention center is America, the land of freedom, hope and opportunity. I look up, Canada Geese are making their annual migration flight across the country seeking warmer climate, their comical cries echoing one another. They rush in a V shape above me, exuding a tremendous sense of freedom, knowing no boundaries, accepting no border, no fence, or law. I am overcome with emotion—this is what it’s like to be free. My daughter and I don’t know how long we’ll be detained here. We have to pass the Credible Fear interview, where we convince Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agents that we have enough plausible fear to not be deported back to Kuwait. If we are released from the detention center, we must prove to an immigration judge that we have adequate reasons to seek asylum in the United States, a process that can take years.

Figure 6 Title of Painting: "Geese" By Fatima Matar
Figure 6 Title of Painting: “Geese” By Fatima Matar

Seven: It’s 2020. My daughter and I have been living in Cleveland, Ohio, for a year. That’s also how long it took for me to get a work permit. I apply for law teaching jobs, but due to either the pandemic or discrimination, I can’t get any work that matches my qualifications. I work at Target, a seasonal position, fraught with eight hours of standing as a cashier and hauling massive dog food bags and bottled goods that feel like they weigh 100 lbs. from conveyer belt to cart. I sanitize carts, the laborious effort of unclenching the stiff, unyielding metal beasts, spraying, wiping, and putting them in rows for shoppers who come in drones, then abandon them somewhere in my vicinity before they leave, in order for me to do it all over again. The added challenge of wearing an uncomfortable mask makes me take shorter and faster breaths, fogs up my glasses, and makes my face itch. At night, my fingers, my arms, my shoulders, my back, my legs, and my feet throb with a burning ache that would not cool for days. It makes me wonder how anyone could argue against paying essential workers minimum wage.

Figure 7 Title of Painting: "Gray" By Fatima Matar
Figure 7 Title of Painting: “Gray” By Fatima Matar

Eight: Anna, my new employer, throws herself on me and bursts into tears. I am a caregiver now after leaving Target. I’ve been caring for Anna’s one year old daughter, Natalia, for the past five months. After a long day of feeding, cleaning, and playing with the baby, I put her down for her second nap. It’s time for me to pick up my daughter from school, but I have to wait for Anna to come back from work so I can leave. Anna says she needs a hug, and in between sobs she tells me about her abusive, estranged husband who is threatening to take Natalia from her, about her loneliness, about Natalia not sleeping in the night. “I’m so tired, I’m so lonely,” Anna whimpers. I try to comfort her, my eyes on the wall clock, and I want to cry too. Caring is draining, it’s consuming, and I don’t have the energy anymore. I can’t carry this load, I don’t want to change diapers, I don’t want to console my employer. I already have a heavy burden to bear.

Figure 8 Title of Painting: None of us is only one: No one knows you as well as your bathroom mirror" By Fatima Matar
Figure 8 Title of Painting: None of us is only one: No one knows you as well as your bathroom mirror” By Fatima Matar

Nine: It’s mid-2021. I have a stack of brochures in my bag advertising my services as an artist, colorful vibrant images of my paintings. “Commission me!” my brochure beacons. “I do portraits. I do custom paintings. I do calligraphy. I do murals. Check out my website!” I give my brochures to galleries, to shop owners, to cafes. I ask them if I can exhibit my art on their walls. Loop, a café in Tremont in Cleveland exhibits my work. I sell eighteen paintings. I feel a joy I haven’t felt in years. I advertise my services on Craigslist. I get commissions, a portrait, and a mural. I gain courage. I continue to paint pictures of migratory birds, especially Canada Geese, remembering how their freedom inspired me when I looked up at them from behind the chain-link fence of the detention center.

Figure 9 Title of Painting: "Geese" by Fatima Matar
Figure 9 Title of Painting: “Geese” by Fatima Matar
Figure 10 Title of Painting: "Geese" By Fatima Matar
Figure 10 Title of Painting: “Geese” By Fatima Matar



Fatima sought asylum in the United States after facing prosecution for her political and social activism in her home country, Kuwait. She lives in the Cleveland area with her daughter, Jori, and their cat, Ty. Her writing has appeared in The Wry Ronin, Acumen, The Journal, Angelic Dynamo, Further Monthly, Fleeting Magazine, Bad Language, Staples Magazine, Word, Jaffat El Aqlam, Oyster River Pages, Gordon Square Review, OffSpring, and Scene Magazine. She is currently querying literary agents for her book Detained, a memoir that relays what happened to her in Kuwait, and inside the Dilley Detention Center in Texas, USA.




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