Flipping the Paper: Making art for her community helps Kubra Alhilali build a new life in Cleveland

Works of Kubra Alhilali feature Arabic calligraphy bearing messages of hope and love.


Artist Kubra Alhilali became a US citizen in 2017. She is happy to be living in Parma with her family, and sees an artist residency as a way to give back to the community that welcomed her.

The residency is hosted by the social service organization Building Hope in the City, as part of the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion program. It has been delayed more than a year by the COVID crisis. As part of the residency, Kubra will have studio space at the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), near Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy. She’ll also paint a mural on the east-facing wall of a building that houses City Wide Carpet & Flooring, on Clark Avenue at West 56th Street. At press time, an image proposed for the mural was in the final approval stages. She expects to be able to start painting in May or June. And in the fall, she’ll make art with students at Clark Elementary School, directly across the street from the mural. With her sister Ala’s help as an interpreter, Kubra spoke about the journey and her art in the offices of Building Hope in the City.

Kubra is from Iraq, and like many immigrants and refugees, she and her family have seen both the best and the worst that the world has to offer. Her family’s journey to Cleveland began in 1995, when her father wrote a poem about Saddam Hussein, which the Iraqi president did not like. There was no freedom of speech under the oppressive government, she says. The two-page poem, in Kubra’s words, caused Hussein’s government to want to kill her father. So he fled to Jordan, leaving behind family, a clothing manufacturing company, and a circle of artistic friends. In 2003, during the war with the US, before Kubra, two sisters, and their mother were able to follow. They bought fake passports. Kubra’s said she was a boy. They lived in Jordan as refugees for ten years.

“Life was hard. We did not have green card or anything to [enable us to] go to school normally. Every few months we had to go back to Iraq to renew [our] visa.”

She remembers the trip back and forth taking between twelve and eighteen hours. The Sunnis and the Shia were fighting. As they drove through cities, they would see corpses, and severed heads of Shia people along the road. At one point Kubra went back to Iraq and stayed two years with her grandparents. She enrolled in an art school there, and one day someone set off a car bomb at the school. “I was inside the building,” she says. “It was two miles from the family house, and my uncle went walking without shoes to check on me.” She felt the vibration, but was not hurt. She says places where art is made were often bombed, because art is “haram”—forbidden by Islamic law.

Eventually Kubra was able to return to Jordan, tricking the guards by posing as a member of a gymnastic group. In Jordan, her family was beginning to rebuild a life. Her father started a small, “under the table” sewing company to make some money. She continued making art.

“I just started to paint things for my country. Always I started with a house. In Iraq we would go to my grandparents’ house. In Jordan we rented: we never had a house. So when I paint, I paint a house. And I would paint things about the war.”

In 2013, the family applied for refugee status through the International Organization for Migration and was able to come to the US. In Cleveland, an organization called Us Together helped them find a place to live. Again, Kubra resumed making art.

In 2015 she had an exhibit at Negative Space Gallery. “I made this show about the war, about kids affected with the chemicals, or who have disabilities, or kids who were affected emotionally. People didn’t like it. The things inside me are not easy to see, not easy for people to take in. It is so sad. It was important for me to show this, but people don’t want to see it.”

So she decided to make art with a different message. “I try to flip the paper,” she says, meaning to turn the page.

She first connected with Building Hope in the City in 2017, studying English and preparing for the naturalization test. Anthony Giambroni, who is manager of community development there, says when the organization was considering being a Creative Fusion host, they immediately thought of it as an opportunity to elevate Kubra as an artist.

She works in a variety of media, from pencil and paper to paint on wood or canvas, scanning images and using a computer if the situation calls for it. She continues to incorporate symbolism. She often integrates Arabic calligraphy—a representation of her culture—with messages of hope and love.

“It is important for me as a refugee artist to do something nice in the city, to show that I am starting new life, to show that we come with peace, with love, with new life. The Hope Center has helped me a lot, so I want to do something for them and for the city.”

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