Re-Creating Home

How a Syrian Architect Cured Homesickness with Art

Unpacked refugee exhibition piece.

Syrian artist and architect, Mohamad Hafez has been homesick since the day he left Syria and moved to the United States in 2003. His homesickness will never go away, he says, because he will never again find the country he had left back then.

“You realize that the country and the civilization you left are no longer there,” Hafez said during an interview. “Even if I go back today it is not what it used to be there.”

Since March 2011, an enduring conflict has ravaged Syria, ruined its towns and cities, impoverished its people and starved its economy. The six-year long conflict has also led to more than 5 million refugees and 6.5 million internally displaced persons.

Throughout the years, Hafez has found his own way to cope with homesickness: recreating home through art.

Hafez is a licensed architect in a firm in New Haven, New Jersey, where he designs skyscrapers. That’s his full-time job. At night, however, Hafez dons his artist dress and withdraws into his studio; a space surrounded by walls covered with photographs of Syria and scrapped materials.

Hafez’s home studio.

Hafez was studying architecture at the University of Iowa when he started remodeling his home with scrapped materials.

“As an architect student, one of the ways I figured out to cope with my home sickness — if I couldn’t go home- was to recreate home,” Hafez said. ”So I started modeling out of scrapped materials and recreated scenes of old Damascus.”

Until now, art is the only cure for Hafez. “For about 12 years, for my own sake and sanity, this is what I have been doing,” he said.

Hafez’s work depicts the political turmoil in the Middle East from Iraq to Afghanistan and to more recently Syria. Through the compilation of found and donated objects, paint and scrap metal, Hafez recreates surrealistic three-dimensional Middle Eastern streetscapes and scenes, often juxtaposed with verses from the Holy Quran. In his most recent work, Hafez incorporated street sounds captured during his only visit to Syria since he has arrived in the United States.

A recent art piece by Hafez titled Unsettled Nostalgia.

Hafez’s homesickness had begun well before the war in Syria erupted. It started from the moment Hafez realized he would not be able to travel in and out the United States freely.

As a Syrian citizen, Hafez suffered from the restrictions imposed by the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) put in place in September 2002 by the George W. Bush Administration in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Under the NSEERS, citizens from 25 countries, 24 of which had majority Muslim or Arab populations, were required to provide fingerprints and a photograph and periodically present themselves for in-person interviews with DHS officers. They were also required to provide detailed information about their plans and to update the Immigration and Customs (ICE) if their plans changed. In December 2016, the Obama administration dismantled the surveillance system, which was deemed discriminatory and ineffective.

Yet for 14 years, Syria was on the NSEERS list and thus Hafez, as a Syrian citizen, was subject to such surveillance.

Hafez, 34, was born in Damascus and spent most of his childhood and teenage years in Saudi Arabia where his father worked as a physician. In 2003, he decided to follow the footsteps of two of his siblings who had moved to the United States and had become American citizens. It took 18 months for Hafez to obtain his first student visa.

A young Hafez posing with a lego structure that he had built.

“My original student visa took a year and a half to get approved regardless of the two dozens times my family came and visited the United States, regardless of my two siblings that were American citizens. None of that mattered. It mattered that I had a Syrian passport,” Hafez recalled.

Unsure whether he would face some difficulties had he traveled abroad, Hafez then decided that it would be safer to not leave the United States. “That taught me a lesson which is that I wouldn’t mess with the system and not risk going home; so for 8 years I was stuck here while all my family and siblings would get together in Syria. That’s how I grew very homesick, very lonely,” Hafez recalled.

Eventually, in 2011, Hafez was sent to Beirut by his firm to pitch a project. Despite his concerns over re-entering the country, Hafez traveled to the Middle East for the first time in eight years. On that work trip, he finally went home.

A 50 story office building designed by Hazef in downtown Houston.

Hazef compares his only visit to Syria to a moment “in heaven” during which he wandered the streets of Damascus, recording and capturing scenes of Damascenes’ daily lives. “I was homesick and so I wanted to capture everything,” he said. “I recorded the call to prayers, pigeons flying to the sky, children playing in a courtyard, taxi drivers having fun with each others and my friends playing cards. I recorded voices on my phones and I took tons of photographs and videos.”

Hafez’s work is filled with memories of a home left over a decade ago and now defaced by an unending war. Although his work reflects the pain caused by years of separation from his country, the scenes he recreates are meant to unite.

“My work is not meant to be political. In our divided societies, both overseas and here, I am not trying to be political but rather join artistically the common denominators among humans,” Hafez said. “The families that lost loved ones and houses and properties back home do not hurt any less than a family that lost their house to a hurricane here or anywhere in the world,” he added.

Hafez’s latest installation–UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage — addresses the refugee crisis and seeks to challenge the public perception by offering a new look to the refugee experience.

In donated and collected suitcases, Hafez sculpturally recreates rooms, homes, buildings and landscapes that have suffered the ravages of war. Each is embedded with the voices and stories of real people who have escaped war-torn countries for a new life in the United States. The stories of refugees were collected and curated by Ahmed Badr, an Iraqi refugee and a UN Migration Youth Ambassador. Visitors experience short audio clips through headphones and can continue reading the stories online and on exhibit placards.

Through his work, Hafez hopes to educate the American public and change perceptions among those who fear foreigners. “If there is one country that should be pro-immigrants and refugees, that is the United States that was built by immigrants; and unless you are a Native American, you have come here on a boat or a plane at some point,” Hafez said.

Hafez is not an American citizen yet but his home, he said, is the United States. “Home is where peace and tranquility are,” Hafez said. “However, I also feel like I am having two lives at once. During the day, I am an architecture in my corporate suit and at night, I am an artist who is longing to the Syrian culture and to these days that are long done.” Hafez added.

“I am an Arab. How do you change this? How do you change the blood in your vessels? You cannot,” said Hafez.


This story was written by Hajer Naili, the Communications and Social Media Coordinator at IOM Washington, D.C.