Nawar Alkhaleel paints in the morning and only in sunlight when each detail she brings to life is most visible. She begins with the eyes. The face, hair and posture that form a portrait in her mind extend on the page from there.
Her portraits are women built by colour, and their gaze, when it finds you, is difficult to break.
It took Nawar just one week to finish her first portrait after arriving in Canada in January 2020. She and her family landed in Toronto on an evening so cold that breath floats. It would be a long winter and then a pandemic ahead, but they would experience all that in Toronto, and not in Beirut, where Nawar, her spouse, Hussein, and their son had lived for years as refugees. They lived there, but it wasn’t a home. In Beirut they couldn’t work legally, or send their son to school once he grew from a toddler to a little boy, or afford much more than essentials like food – and paint.
Nawar still painted in Beirut but in fewer, quieter tones to save money on colours.
She knew she would become an artist at age 18 and enrolled in a visual arts program at a university in Homs, the city where she grew up in Syria. Her family are artists too. Her sister and brother paint, and a second brother is a machinist with a talent for Arabic calligraphy. She dreamed of a career of creating and selling her work, and began teaching art to children after university as she got started.
The war ended those plans. Homs faced heavy bombing early in the Syrian civil war and many thousands of its residents had to escape. The city counted some 1.5 million people before the war, roughly the size of Montreal, but photos after years of fighting show open-air ruins that are empty and almost look ancient.
Nawar joined Hussein in Lebanon in 2013. Their families spread out from home too, some in Turkey, others in the Emirates. Today, nearly one million people live as refugees in Lebanon, the largest host country relative to its population, where one in seven people are refugees. Exactly ten years after the start of the civil war, Syrians remain the largest displaced group globally at 6.6 million people.
There are few good options facing refugees in countries of first asylum like Lebanon. Many are forced to work illegally and face discrimination, meagre pay and exploitation. Humanitarian resettlement is nearly impossible for most people to access – less than 1% of the world’s 26 million refugees move to a safe country through resettlement each year – leaving many to turn to irregular and often dangerous journeys in pursuit of a better life.
Nawar and Hussein are part of a small but growing group globally who tried something new by using skilled immigration to leave displacement. Hussein is a talented carpenter and registered his skills and career goals with the global non-profit Talent Beyond Boundaries while living in Lebanon. Through the work of this non-profit, a pioneering employer in Vaughan, and the support of Canadian and Ontario governments and the UNHCR, Hussein interviewed for a job in Canada and got hired. He became one of the first international recruits to relocate to Canada, with Nawar and their son, as a skilled worker and former refugee under Canada’s Economic Mobility Pathways Project.
Many thousands can follow as Canada’s recruitment and immigration systems shift to enable people like Hussein and Nawar to use their skills and relocate just like talented people anywhere.
Nawar’s latest painting began with the eyes and grew outwards in layers of colour. This woman’s face is shaped in blue, green, yellow, orange, red, and purple. As if her warmth and character come momentarily to the surface, only when you lock eyes together.
She left some paintings in Beirut that were too large to carry but her collection in Toronto is growing and Nawar wants to exhibit them one day. She can’t pick out a favourite, but among her favourites are women, hands like Hussein’s crafting wood, and nature, a subject she wants to better learn. This could be the place to do it.
Her wooden easel, built by Hussein, sits in a bright living room. Without rationing paint, and in the sunlight after her son goes to school, Nawar said, “drawing here is more beautiful.”
Nawar Alkhaleel is a Toronto-based artist who specializes in oil painting and handcraft artwork. She is a graduate of the Institute of Arts in Homs, Syria. She relocated to Canada in January 2020 with her partner and young son.
Contact TalentLift to start hiring talented candidates in displacement or to reach Nawar Alkhaleel about her work. See a commissioned painting by Nawar on the cover of the Talent Beyond Boundaries cookbook.