A Syrian artist whose work about the war in his country has captured the world’s imagination has vowed not to apply for a United States visa until President Donald Trump is out of power.
Khaled Akil’s latest project is being exhibited from Tuesday at California’s Stanford University.
Under Trump’s recent executive order, which suspends travel for Syrian refugees indefinitely, there is no way he would be able to attend his opening.
“I understand they want to interview people and they have the right to know who is coming, but to give a racist order like this to prevent us is agonising,” Akil told Al Jazeera.
Akil moved to Istanbul, Turkey, five years ago. Since 2012, he has applied twice to visit the US to attend exhibitions and was rejected on both occasions.
He fears that in the US, because of the travel ban, there was now “justification for people to hate Syrians”.
“With Trump, I will never apply for the visa, whether or not a ban is in place,” he said. “The politics worries me because it creates the tension that I saw in my own country which led to more violence. That’s why I can’t trust the system any more, I won’t feel safe there.”
Besides banning Syrian refugees, Trump’s order also halts the US refugee programme for 120 days, and bars all immigration for citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for at least 90 days.
Akil’s exhibition in California, “Requiem for Syria”, captures the hope and resilience of a population at war.
“It makes my heart sink that he can’t be here,” Anita Husen, Stanford’s associate dean of students, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s really sad that such a wonderful, talented artist who has generously offered Stanford to host his original prints, free of charge, will not be here to celebrate his opening,” she added.
“Painting broad strokes to deny people right to entry … is not making America any safer,” Husen said. “It’s hurting our intellectual prowess.”
Akil’s work has previously been exhibited at galleries in London, Beirut, San Francisco, Vermont and Istanbul.
One of his projects last year was titled “Pokemon Go In Syria – Part 1” and featured the animated figures in war-torn neighbourhoods.
“I will wait for at least four years [to apply for a US visa],” said Akil, adding that each application costs $160.
“[Trump’s] a racist man and I can’t trust him. I trust the American people – they are also victims of this propaganda.”
Akil’s 2016 ‘Pokemon Go In Syria’ series depicted animated figures amid scenes of war [Khaled Akil/AFP]
Seen by Al Jazeera, Akil’s 2016 rejection letter from the US consulate in Istanbul says that he was found “ineligible for a nonimmigrant visa”.
“You have not demonstrated that you have ties that will compel you to your home country after your travel to the United States,” the letter reads.
Trump’s travel order has exacerbated Syrians’ difficulties in travelling to the US.
The Syrian war began in March 2011. From 2012 to 2015, some 60,000 Syrians left their country, applied for visas and were rejected – four times the number of refusals than during the prior three-year period.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, has estimated that 400,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, which has also displaced millions.
“We are the first victims of this war, we are the victims of terrorism,” said Akil, who explained that while he would not apply for another visa any time soon, he hopes to continue exhibiting his work in the US.
“It’s very important for Americans to see Syria now. They’re just getting what the media is providing them. If we show them our art, music and writing, we can introduce then to our culture and show them not all Syrians are terrorists.”
Growing protests among artists
Akil is among a growing number of artists who are protesting the discriminatory travel measures.
Oscar-nominated Iranian director Asghar Farhadi said he would not attend the Academy Awards ceremony in late February, whether or not he would be granted an exception to enter the US.
Taraneh Alidoosti, who stars in Farhadi’s celebrated film, “The Salesman”, is also boycotting the event.
Malorie Blackman, a British children’s author, said she would not travel to the US while the travel ban was in place in solidarity with those affected.
Comma Press, a UK-based publisher, said it would only translate authors from the seven banned nations in 2018.
Marcia Lynx Qualey, a Cairo-based literary critic, said: “The violence of such an executive act cannot be countered solely with art, or translation.”
She called for the empowerment of authors from the affected countries through forging connections between those writers and literary communities, “thus resisting the ban”.