Art classes in Sydney are being used to help young Muslims in Australia dispel feelings of victimization. The classes teach the richness and beauty of Islamic art, and give students a greater understanding and appreciation of their faith. The art courses are run by a talented Iraqi refugee. Phil Mercer in Sydney went to meet the Iraqi refugee who teaches the courses and some of her students.
Alia Hassan's art draws on personal tragedy and upheaval. Seven years ago she fled tyranny in Iraq. And more recently her brother was murdered by insurgents there.
Almost every wall in her suburban Sydney home displays one of her paintings. They illustrate her village, its doors and windows. A large tear on one piece depicts the pain of the past.
Each picture tells a story of suffering and survival.
"I pass to the audience that I miss my home and my friends," she explains.
REPORTER: And this simply says that you miss your homeland, you miss Iraq?
"Yes, I miss my friends, my land, my everything, my childhood. I leave everything there," she says.
But life in Australia can be tough for Muslim immigrants.
Although Australia is a multicultural nation, the Muslim community is relatively small - about 350,000 strong - but it is growing. Some of these new immigrants say they feel isolated and threatened in their new country. Many say they regularly encounter discrimination or anti-Muslim comments in public.
Kurander Seyit says the immigrants need to work to move beyond their feelings of isolation and fear.
"I think that we have to get away from the siege mentality and the victim mentality that we fall into. It's a trap," Seyit says.
Seyit joined with artist Hassan, and organized Islamic art classes for young Muslims. She believes it is time for Muslim immigrants to make a fresh start.
"We are seeing changes in the mentality of many Muslim people in Australia," she explains. "I think that we're seeing more initiatives that are building on empowering young people and communities and giving them a sense of esteem and pride in their history and their identity. And that's really where we need to move towards because once that happens, you'll have a sense of normalization and communities will be able to respect and work with each other and you won't feel abnormal, so to speak, and you won't feel marginalized."
Alia Hassan's work has been an inspiration to her students.
The course she runs aims to help Australian Muslims appreciate the beauty of Islamic and Arabic art.
The novice painters have been introduced to calligraphy made up of selected verses of the Koran. The works on canvas are full of rich colors. Student Nurhan Danyaldiz says they reflect the sacredness of art in Islam.
"Knowing the Muslim religion and all the other aspects with the Koran and everything, this has actually shown the most aesthetic side to the religion as well, being more meticulous and also being very simple and easy and how beautiful it actually is," Danyaldiz says.
That sense of pride is shared by other classmates. Seventeen-year-old Saima Ali, who came to Australia as a refugee from Afghanistan in 2005, hopes that art will help non-Muslims appreciate her faith a little more.
"To make them understand and give them a more positive knowledge about Islam, those people who have a misconcept[ion] about Islam," she says. "So, it gives them a positive idea and shows the beauty of Islam through the art."
The paintings of Alia Hassan and her students will get a public airing here at the Museum of Sydney, which charts Australia's colonial and Aboriginal history. Muslims believe their faith and customs can become integral parts of the country's multicultural blend. They hope that showcasing the art of Islam at one of Australia's best-known museums will be an important step forward.