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Iraqi American painter Kubra Alhilali transitions from hardship to hope in Cleveland

Kubra Alhilali was born in Baghdad, Iraq, to a family of artists.

“I start to paint when I was maybe six years old,” Alhilali said. “I never stopped [painting] or drawing.”

Alhilali has established herself as a full-time artist in Cleveland since immigrating to Northeast Ohio in 2012, as a refugee of the Iraq War, with a goal to present a positive image of Iraqis and Arabs.

In 1996, her father, a poet, was forced to flee to Jordan and separate from Alhilali and the family. They joined him there 7 years later after the war in Iraq began in 2003.

Alhilali and her family lived in Jordan for almost a decade but had to return to Iraq every six months to renew their visas. During this time she decided to go back to Baghdad and enroll in art school. But it was a challenge and dangerous in 2006.

Iraqi American artist Kubra Alhilali paints in her studio
Dave DeOreo
Ideastream Public Media
Kubra Alhilali works on her mural "Passion" in her studio.

“It was a problem …especially for the women,” she said. “It was hard to go to school not wearing hijab and to study art. It was so hard. They don't accept it.”

Then tragedy struck. Alhilali said a car bomb exploded outside of the school's front door. She said two colleagues from her school were killed that day.

“[The school] was really close to my grandma's house. And when they hear the bomb, my uncle, he was running with no shoes to the school,” she said. “And my mom, she was calling. It was really hard…We lost a lot of friends.”

Alhilali said she left school after the bombing and returned to Jordan. All the while, her family was seeking asylum in the United States and because a relative lived in Northeast Ohio she and her family eventually moved to Cleveland.

Painter Kubra Alhilali works on her mural "Passion" in her studio.
Dave DeOreo
Ideastream Public Media
Painter Kubra Alhilali works on her mural "Passion" in her studio.

“It was like a new life for us,” she said.

The Ohio humanitarian group US Together helped Alhilali and her family move to Parma and got her work as a seamstress. US Together also helped Alhilali pursue her passion.

“They help me to do art show and to do mural, to do a lot of things and also workshop for student, she said. “Then I have my studio, I get studio and I do the art for full time, like a full-time job.”

Alhilali’s first art exhibition took place in 2015 at the Negative Space art gallery in downtown Cleveland.

However, she realized those initial paintings of children during the war were too challenging for her audience and for herself.

Painting by Kubra Alhilali from Deferred Childhood exhibition
Kubra Alhilali
Negative Space Gallery
A painting from Kubra Alhilali's 2015 exhibition "Deferred Childhood."

“It was sad. And I know it's something really hard to show it to people, but it's happened. There is a lot of kids they are dead or they are sick of all the war. So we have to show it,” she said. “But it was so hard to me to paint this, the real picture. I have to paint it. It was so hard.”

Following the catharsis of that first exhibit, Alhilali has moved on to broader and more hopeful themes of life, freedom, peace and love.

“Because I'm Iraqi, I have to show people we like peace, we love art. And I have to show it to people,” she said.

Alhilali likes to use Arabic calligraphy in her work to identify where she's from.

She’s also found inspiration in University Circle at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

“The museum inspired me to do more work. And when I go there, I see myself there and I feel fresh and I get more ideas, more things. So it's my home,” she said.

Alhilali’s recently completed “Passion” mural brightens a wall outside the Women’s Recovery Center in Cleveland’s Clark-Fulton Neighborhood.

Dave DeOreo is coordinating producer for Ideastream Public Media’s arts and culture team.
Jean-Marie Papoi is a digital producer for the arts & culture team at Ideastream Public Media.