As a young child, Hussein Al-Baiaty and his family were forced to flee their home in war-torn Iraq and live in a makeshift camp. Years later, they began to build a new life in Oregon and Hussein began to grapple not only with the trauma of his early years but also with his various identities.
His new book, Art of Resilience: The Refugee State of Mind, is part memoir, and part how it operates and how we can develop it. On Author Hour today, Hussein shares some of his story, discusses the power of creativity, and explains why it’s so important for citizens who are born in America to pay attention to and learn from the refugee experience.
Jane Stogdill: Hi, Author Hour listeners. I’m here today with Hussein Al-Baiaty, author of Art of Resilience: The Refugee State of Mind. Hussein, thank you so much for being with us today.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for having me.
Jane Stogdill: This book is largely storytelling and you write also about sharing your story not only helps others but also has helped you unpack what happened. To start, can you just briefly tell our listeners about your background?
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, absolutely. I’m originally from Iraq, I like to call it the cradle of civilization. I am from Al Samawah, Iraq, which is a southern town, in the southern part of Iraq. I had quite the experience of how I got out of there and into a refugee camp and then coming to America. I guess you can say, first and foremost, I’m a human being. Second, I am an Arab of Middle Eastern descent, but more so, I like to gravitate towards the idea, the fact that I’m a spirit inside a human body.
Jane Stogdill: At some point, in your youth, you also carried the moniker, refugee?
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, unfortunately, that word is very powerful and when we use it today, it’s got a lot of power behind it and what it means in a displaced world. However, in 1990 when the Gulf War happened, when Saddam invaded Kuwait, for whatever reasons.
Political, these reasons don’t necessarily matter to society sometimes. Unfortunately, when we have a dictator, dictators just do what they want and unfortunately, we went into war with Kuwait. The western allies, along with the United States, did not like that and what he was doing. Instead of supporting him in the war against Iran, they went against him and started a war.
My family and I were, again, we were in the south so we were caught in the mess of this. So, we had to leave our home but one specific night that I clearly remember and I believe this is when all of my memory and really, my trauma began was the night of the bombings. So, every bridge that we had known, so many parts of the city, we basically huddled in a corner.
My dad hugging us basically like, we could die at any moment. I remember him clearly, just reciting Quranic verses, and then I fell asleep to this insanity of a moment, and then I woke up. When I woke up, we were pretty much just gathering whatever we could and left the house and went to the outskirts of Iraq to a salt mine where we ended up staying for a couple of days, before we ended up officially being called refugees and seeking refuge in the country next to us, which is Saudi Arabia.
They didn’t pull us into the city. They left us out in the outskirts of Saudi Arabia, which is a desert. So, here we are, displaced, our home, our country, everything, and then Saddam turned on us, even more, when the support didn’t come.
He called everyone that left a traitor, and that if they were to return, he would execute them. Not only were we displaced and now homeless and countryless, but we were also stranded in the desert and, on top of that, we were also considered traitors to our own country. It was a defining moment in life to understand your humanity, and I was young. I was very young, I was very lucky that I had my mom, my dad and my brothers, my siblings, they were the foundation in which I was able to develop as a young kid.
I really think there was some sort of divinity there to have it because a lot of other people didn’t have that, a lot of people lost so much. As a matter of fact, when we walked out of our house that morning, two houses down, in both directions, half the city was wrecked. I mean, people died, and my uncle died, and then so many incidents happened, and we were just looking around thinking this is beyond winning the lottery, imagine, you know? That’s how I feel, I feel like my life has been literally from that moment, you won the lottery early, what are you going to do with it now?
Jane Stogdill: A lot is the short answer. You mentioned this support system you had and I want to talk to you about this idea of resilience, which of course is in the title and is a big part of the book. What do you mean first of all when you talk about resilience?
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, I think for me personally, because it came up a lot as I was writing, as I was sort of unpacking and meeting myself, right? Whenever I went back in time in my memories, I met younger versions, older versions, teenage versions of myself, and what came up a lot was, I was asking myself, what was I doing in tough times? Because I was always met with some sort of tough decision, with some sort of thing I had to overcome and relearn or learn.
It came up a lot that resilience showed itself in different ways. In moments of patience. In moments of understanding what support structures mean, in moments of discipline, in moments of optimism and playing, creativity, I realized that all of those things were really interwoven with the ideas of resilience. You need all of those things to fully understand your own resilience as a human being.
I further went back in time and really tried to understand what my ancestors were doing because they went from Sumerians to Babylonians and really, that connects all humanity to now–going through wars, going through kingdoms, when you take time and just unravel it, you realize that the people there have endured a lot and I realized that the things that I was feeling weren’t just my own, it was this passed down traumatic experience of how to deal with survival.
Though we were in the midst of this refugee camp, my father still had an optimistic vision of us, of the future, a hope. Hope is where I start the book and that’s really the basis of all that I believe. Resilience, it’s like, you have to have something that centers you around hope. Hope is tethered right between what’s possible and what isn’t, and you have to decide based on your life experience what is possible and you have to choose that constantly.
Resilience, the idea for me, what I came to find out is that through uncovering all these layers and all these experiences is that I constantly wanted to just choose the better outcome, no matter how much the outcome was weighing against me. It all comes down to that choice, that hope, and I realized when I came to America that it was constantly like being tested, that choice was always being tested.
Once I realized how strong I was from my ancestral heritage, I now view that as a funny thing when that choice comes up–I’m like, it’s automated. I don’t even think about it anymore, it’s like, “I know what I have to do, no matter how many times I have to do it.”
Jane Stogdill: You mentioned your father and the time you all spent in the tent, which is just quickly, how long were you living in the desert?
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Three years, nine months or so, almost four years.
Jane Stogdill: I say tent but that was only part of it because then you built a structure out of mud bricks, which is incredible but the book is also a love letter to your father. First of all, I’m sorry for your loss.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, thank you.
Jane Stogdill: Your father painted, had the audacity to share his paintings with the guards as a way to try to drum up business, which worked, and helped you guys not only receive more resources but also get out, is that right?
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, 100 percent.
The Creative Mind
Jane Stogdill: He also taught you to paint while you were in the tent. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, absolutely. I think being resourceful is a necessity, right? When you’re in survival, it’s amazing how creative the mind becomes. It’s really remarkable when you’re under pressure, and we don’t give ourselves enough credit. I don’t think I do even, I think it’s really magnificent what the mind starts to conjure and how it seeks ways to survive. From our father, he was an amazing guy and he loved art, took us to theater, museums, he was an involved, community man.
From my perspective, he wanted to ensure that we had some of that. Not only was he this sociable guy, he took us out and made sure that we were involved in the community and met people–don’t be scared to say hello and don’t be scared, sort of slowly carving out the fears of where we were but trying to, I guess, if you will, normalize, to the best of his ability, the situation we were in.
I think for him, he had to also endure it too. It was not only just educating your kids and trying to be optimistic around them–because he knew we were surrounded by darkness, so he had to be the light. That was so powerful for me now looking back, right?
In the time, in the moment, I grew up watching him painting, watching him do all of these amazing things. I was one of the only kids that would gravitate towards this, so he saw something in me as well. He nourished that, he kept feeding that and so he would get crayons or colored pencils, a lot of colored pencils actually. I don’t think I knew what a crayon was until I came to America but it was a lot of colored pencils.
He would say, “Okay, look,” he’d get a pack and these things weren’t easy to get a hold of. He would make sure he had friends and people and connections to get these things and he’d say, “Okay, I got a pack. Here are some papers,” here’s some whatever, and like, “Here’s the color yellow. Just look around the house, look around the tent, what do you see that’s yellow? Draw it and try to draw it from different angles and use up the entire piece of paper.”
He would make me do this, but he wouldn’t force me to do it. He would encourage me, right? For hours on end and I became obsessed. That was one way of him sort of coaching me through and bringing out my own gifts and what I wanted to do. He helped me understand or how to speak through my hands, through art, and allow my frustrations or happiness or joy, any of those kinds of things to express and form.
It wasn’t until, I swear it probably had been a year, maybe two years before he gave me a whole pack of colored pencils, you know, like that big pack. I think for a couple of hours, I just stared at him. I don’t know what to do, there are so many options. I don’t even know which one to choose, you know? I think for him, it was just a way to save because he knew if he just gave them all to me, I wouldn’t value them probably.
He really wanted to instill what it means to have value and to value things and objects in a particular way. It was powerful. I thank him for that every day, and that’s why it was like a love letter because it’s what I get to do today in my life. It really revolves around art and graphics and all those kinds of things and what I want to say. So, those times were crucial.
A Creative Voice
Jane Stogdill: I love the line when he told you to tell the paper what you want to say, which you alluded to. How has exploring your creativity–is that part of resilience to you, having your creative voice?
Hussein Al-Baiaty: It’s such an outlet. I got so lucky because I was able to discover that at such a young age. Because a lot of people struggle with creative outlets and we go through life like, “Oh sometimes it’s exercise or meditation or prayer,” or some sort of artistic expression, right? Whether it’s music or poetry–I mean look, we’re human beings. We love to create, and I think I got very lucky to be around a creative person at a very young age and that allowed me and encouraged me to express myself and be intentional about what I wanted to say.
That the piece of paper or whatever I was facing was not only a receiver, but it was a conduit. It’s the whistle and what you put through it, what comes out the other end is what people hear or receive, so be intentional about the air you’re putting through it. Those are the kind of metaphors and poetry I grew up with. He had a story, a fable about almost everything and he would always have the right piece of wisdom to coach me through.
Something that I always struggle through or try to portray through art and always came down to, “What are you trying to say with this and who you’re saying it to?” To me now, that’s the epitome of business and science and marketing, you know, all of those things that we utilize.
Jane Stogdill: Through both your art and your storytelling, you have really figured out what you want to say and said it effectively. What is the refugee state of mind? What do you mean when you say that and what does it mean to you?
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, thank you for that question. It’s actually powerful. I think for a long time for me personally, especially growing up in America, I wanted to fit in. I wanted people to like me, I wanted more than anything, I wanted people to know about the Middle Eastern heritage more than what was given or regularly seen. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen about Arabs and Middle Eastern heritage has been negative for as long as I have been here.
I knew I couldn’t change anything outside of me and it was really hard to debate that or argue that and I wasn’t going to walk around with a Quran. I wasn’t going to, I am just not that person. So, I thought, “Okay, what do I have to do to ensure that whoever I’m working with, I have that respect of you’re not going to just judge me by being there in person or Middle Eastern person or Muslim or anything like that. You are going to judge me based on the fact that I’m a human being and I deserve your respect.”
That was where the whole seeking knowledge thing came from. I have to really understand myself, understand my gifts. I have to study and further enhance them in every way, shape, or form so that I’m an image of my truest self. I think for a long time, I was embarrassed about being a refugee. I was embarrassed about being on welfare.
I was embarrassed about being on housing. I was embarrassed to go to Ross to get $20 shoes because I wanted the $100 shoes, right? I wanted to fit in this box which was laid out in front of me through my peers, through television, through pop culture. The older I got, the more I realized like truly none of those things matter, which is the thing that my father really wanted to get through to me was you have to be who you are, that’s what’s matters most.
You have to do whatever it takes to get to who you are, and I realized that being a refugee was actually my superpower. It was the thing that I shouldn’t be embarrassed about. It was the thing that gave me my talent. It was the thing that got me super close, though it was a traumatic experience that I wouldn’t wish on absolutely anybody. I call it the training ground for what I needed to come to America because I had so many obstacles waiting.
Having gone through that, the obstacles that I faced were challenging but they weren’t as challenging as I had gone through a refugee camp. It gave me balance, it gave me the idea, “Hey look, now you’re privileged, now you have a degree and you’re doing well,” and all of these things, “What do you do with that now?” For a long time, I carried survivor’s guilt. I survived and other people didn’t and so I had to unpack that and figure that out and seek help.
For me, it became that I wanted to embrace what it means to be a refugee because it’s not a bad thing. It’s not a negative thing. It’s a thing that happens to people because of a bad situation but those people are the essence of what I believe is resilience because they are surviving despite the traumatic experiences that they have just gone through, whether being displaced by climate change or war, any kind of reason. So, that in and of itself, and then they have to endure however many years, and months being away from their children.
Being away from their parents, the solitude, all of those things, and a lot of them don’t have the means to express themselves because they probably weren’t educated. They probably weren’t traveled. For me, it was just realizing, you have to be a very tough person to endure that, and now that I have studied it. I want people who have gone through that not to be embarrassed but to embrace that and say, “You know what? Yes, I was a refugee and that’s what helped me become a doctor.”
That’s what helped me do this or that or become an architect, that’s what pushed me and now, that’s a reservoir for positivity and not a reservoir of being a victim of the world, right? Now, we can try to help and bring solutions to refugee camps, to policymakers who are so eager to go to war. It’s like no, we can’t do this again and again because you don’t know what you’re creating here. It’s a big issue and so if we don’t talk about it and if I don’t bring my story and if I don’t help others bring their story to the table, then those voices keep dimming and those issues keep happening.
For me, it was just like I was seeking refuge in those memories to further embrace myself and so, I embraced it. I used to debate and want to fight people if they’d called me a refugee because I didn’t want to be called that. I challenge you because I am self-made and so I tell people it’s literally the gym in which I had to go through the obstacles. So, why would I neglect that part of my life when it was the essence of my life and so, it became like my superpower.
Jane Stogdill: That’s beautiful, thank you for sharing, and thank you for being with us today. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you and it’s a lovely book, congratulations. Again, listeners, the book is, Art of Resilience: The Refugee State of Mind. Hussein, in addition to reading the book, where can people go to learn more about you and the other things you do?
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for having me, seriously this has been a great conversation even though I feel like I consumed all of it. I appreciate you so much. You can go to husseinalbaiaty.com, that’s where you can find everything about the book, about speaking and this new thing we’re calling The Resilience Club, where people and artists have a way to have accountability in their work and their projects. My goal is to help other artists bring their social causes to art to further help them along in this journey.
Jane Stogdill: Well, thank you for doing that. It was a pleasure speaking.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Absolutely, thank you.