Drawing inspiration: Falmouth students, Portland refugee connect while sharing story of Darfur

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FALMOUTH — El-Fadel Arbab said he is amazed every time he looks at the artwork created by high school students whose backgrounds are so different from his own.

In vivid, colorful paintings and haunting black and white sketches, the works of art illustrate the joy Arbab experienced in his childhood, followed by the tragedy of the violence that ripped him away from his family.

The artwork is part of “Illuminating the Beauty and Tragedy of Darfur,” a project that allowed Arbab, a refugee who lives in Portland, to forge personal connections with teenagers from Falmouth as they raise awareness about genocide in Darfur, a region in western Sudan.

The violence in Darfur has led to the loss of 400,000 lives and forced more than 200,000 Darfuris to flee their homes, Arbab said. 

The pieces will be on display Monday, April 2, in the Falmouth High School theater lobby. They were first displayed in November as part of Portland’s First Friday Art Walk.

On Monday, guests are invited to view the artwork from 6-7  p.m. while talking with the artists, sampling Sudanese food and browsing items for sale to benefit Darfur groups. Prints of the pieces created by advanced art students will be sold for $10.

The Pihcintu Multicultural Children’s Chorus will sing at 7 p.m., followed by a performance by the Malia Sudanese dancers. Daniel Sullivan, director of policy and government relations for United to End Genocide, will be present to provide updates about the current situation in Darfur.

Proceeds from the event benefit United to End Genocide, The Fur Cultural Revival and the Enough Project.

Arbab, 28, shared his story of fleeing genocide in Darfur with students, then met with them regularly as they turned his words into works of art.

Arbab’s story began a world away from the coast of Maine. He spent his early childhood in Darfur helping with chores, playing games among towering trees and learning from his elders.

At age 12, his village was surrounded by Janjaweed militia and the Sudanese military, who ripped babies out of their mothers’ arms and killed children with machetes so they “wouldn’t waste a bullet,” he said.

Arbab fled his home as it was engulfed in flames, only to be grabbed by a militia member and thrown in a burning hut. With flames burning his back and head, Arbab managed to escape the building and eventually, in a screen of smoke, fled the village.

Heeding his grandfather’s advice to follow the light on the horizon, he spent a week traveling to the nearest village, running by night and hiding in trees by day.

Arbab spent the next few years travelling to the capital of Sudan, scouring garbage bins for food and sleeping on a cardboard box. He collected discarded items to sell at the market so he could buy clean water.

Eventually he received word some of his brothers were in Egypt. He made his way there after reuniting with his mother, then eventually settled in Portland. In Maine, he learned to speak English through Portland Adult Education, and now travels the country sharing his story.

“For me it was amazing to see the way I got the story out and the way they put these pieces out,” Arbab said of the Falmouth students. “It’s really like the scenes I’d see when I was 12 years old. It’s just exactly what I told them.”

‘This is what they’re going to remember’

Arbab’s story is one the high school students – and their teachers – aren’t likely to forget.

Holly MacEwan, service learning coordinator for Falmouth schools, introduced the students to Arbab and organized the project with art teacher Nancy Durst. She said it was amazing to watch the connections formed between Arbab and the students.

“He’s gotten into their hearts,” she said. “He told the story, but the kids made it come to live in these pictures. I think the artwork was a deep journey into Sudan, it wasn’t just reading about it.”

Durst said her 18 students rose to the challenge of telling a powerful story that was not their own, creating pieces that “can bring you to tears.”

“In my 29 years of teaching, this is probably the most powerful assignment I’ve created,” she said. “When they leave high school this is what they’re going to remember. It was a very powerful experience for all of us because they made a huge impact.”

Jonah Zuckerman, a junior, said Arbab’s story led him to create a “Devil on Horseback” using watercolor and ink. He said he used Arbab’s vivid description of the Janjaweed militia, which is loosely translated to “devil on horseback,” to illustrate the tragedy in Darfur. 

Zuckerman said it was inspiring and enlightening to hear Arbab’s first-hand account of the genocide in Darfur.

“It definitely brings it closer to home so you can really understand what people are going through,” he said. “When you hear it on the news it seems so far away.

Junior Geneva Waite said she worked to capture the fear in the face of a mother trying to protect her children from the militia. She said creating art based on Arbab’s story allowed her to connect with a topic she had previously only heard about on the news.

“Doing this really stuck with me because it was a way to personalize it and feel some of the feelings (Darfuris) would have in different situations,” she said.

Natalie Kuhn joined the advanced art class this semester and is working to complete her pieces for the exhibit. She said she wanted to be part of the project after seeing the art show last fall.

“It was pretty intense. There were people crying, it was emotional,” she said. “I was especially inspired by the loss of children’s innocence.”

Madeline Jones, a sophomore who also just joined the class, said working on the project brings out a range of emotions.

“It definitely just so sad, but it’s really humbling,” she said. “It’s kind of hopeful when you see what (Arbab) has been through and how he helps people.”

Kuhn said Arbab’s encouragement makes her feel she can help people.

“He’s the most inspiring person I know,” she said.

Arbab said he is the one who is inspired.

“It was amazing to see these kids. They are very talented, smart and creative to listen to someone’s story and create this tremendous work,” he said. “For me it was a big connection to them. I feel so close to them.”

“The kids have the power to stop this tragedy,” he added.

Arbab said he will use the artwork as he travels around the country to share his story. 

“We believe if people know our stories they will know where to start and how to make a difference,” Arbab said. “… The change will start in Falmouth and go to the rest of the country and the world.”

Gillian Graham can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or ggraham@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @grahamgillian.

Sidebar Elements

Art student Madeline Jones, left, and El-Fadel Arbab, a Sudanese refugee who lives in Portland, discuss the artwork Jones is creating for the “Illuminating the Beauty and Tragedy of Darfur” project at Falmouth High School. Students created art after listening to Arbab’s story of escaping the genocide in Darfur as a child. The event, scheduled for Monday, April 2, includes art displays, Sudanese food, music and dance performances to benefit United to End Genocide and the Fur Cultural Revival.

Falmouth High School student Jade Russel-Johnson created “Hide and Seek” after hearing El-Fadel Arbab describe how he hid in trees to escape the genocide in Darfur.