Building Cultural Bridges Through Art:

An Experience of a Syrian Engineer and Visual Artist in America

By Dima Kroma

info@dimakroma.com

Dima is a Syrian-German informatics engineer, web designer and developer, a wife and mother of two, living in Jacksonville, Florida. As a passionate fine art painter, she has participated in many art exhibitions. Dima builds cultural bridges through her art to break cultural boundaries and encourage open mindedness and inclusion for all.
Check out her website for more information: www.dimakroma.com

Echoes of Oud- Oil on Canvas. Photo Credit: Dima Kroma

I am from Syria. Growing up in Syria before the war meant that our big family gathered every week at my grandmother’s house as she played  Oud, a Middle Eastern musical instrument. It also meant filling my lungs with the jasmine scent from our garden every evening and waking up to the smell of coffee with cardamom every morning.

Part of the front yard of my parents summer house where the Jasmine bush next to the gate filled the air with its scent. Photo Credit: Dima Kroma

I lived in Homs, Syria, until November 2010 when I moved to the United States to get married to my fiancé who was studying Pharmacy at Purdue University. At that time, my plan was to go back to Syria for a few days every few months to see my parents and run my business there as I continued to work remotely. I had been an Informatics Engineer working in web development and I had my own business in Syria.

However, my plan didn’t fully deliver and my last visit to Syria was in March 2011. I will never forget that last trip. Unfortunately, the civil war broke out while I was there. There were bullets everywhere including the exterior walls of our house that suddenly turned into a piece of tragedy in the span of only a couple of days. It was the first time in my life to see a real bullet.

Realizing that it was scary and unsafe, I returned to the U.S. with a broken heart.  All I could wish for was for my parents and all the people I loved to be safe. However, I knew that the war wasn’t going to protect them in any way. It had already taken the lives of my beloved cousins. Many of the people I knew were killed, kidnapped, arrested, or went missing never to be found again.

Even after returning from Syria, I was still reminded of the heartbreaking memories and tragic imagery of the beautiful home I once had. Every second, I wished that it was a bad nightmare that at one point I will wake up to find that everything was fine.

I grew lonely and scared day by day. My husband worked long hours and I spent the whole day alone most of the time. The war had also shut down the only communication channel I had with my parents — phone and the Internet — who lived in Homs as the city was bombed.

Homs – Acrylic paint on Canvas. Photo Credit: Dima Kroma

Whenever I heard in the news that a place in Syria was under siege, all the longing and memories came back to me. It was a strange and inexplicable feeling that I had never felt before — a nostalgia. The feeling naturally led me to grab a paintbrush and start painting the places I missed. The canvas and paintbrush were my oldest, loyal friends, and at that time, they were my only refuge.

When I didn’t paint, I spent long hours at the library reading and trying to heal. As a child, my father, an orthopedic surgeon and an avid reader himself, always taught me that there is an impressive healing power found between the bookshelves at the library. He made sure that I knew that reading gave me wings to soar high through imagination and inspired me to discover my inner self.

I enjoyed reading about art, poetry, adventures, cultures, history, science, and human development. My father and I used to discuss books at his clinic after he finished seeing his patients. He often had his poet and writer friends over to the clinic for a book club. One of my joys growing up was to listen in as they discussed a variety of topics from the books they had read. My father also had a big library at home that I loved to sneak in and read peacefully. In America, all of these fond memories about reading naturally led me to spend most of my time between the public library and my art studio at home.

Al Zaharia Library in Damascus, Syria, built in 1277 – Oil on Canvas. Photo Credit: Dima Kroma

One day, I met a lady at the library who approached me to ask, “Where are you from?” I told her that I was from Syria and that I had been in the U.S. for only a short time. She said, “your English is very good, you must be very smart to learn English that quickly.” I answered that it was while in elementary school in Syria that I started learning English. I immediately noticed that my response was a surprise to her. “I didn’t know that girls could go to school in Syria!” As startled as I was about her reaction, I tried to keep myself calm and told her that I was an engineer. Again, this took her by surprise. I was in shock that some people knew nothing about Syrians, or even worse, they had the wrong information. That was when I decided to do something to tell my story to Americans through my passion — painting. I was determined to use my art to build cultural bridges and  teach people who we are and where we came from.

I started painting about my culture, traditions, people, history and more. And I made sure that each painting had a story to tell– A story that crossed beyond the barriers of time and space to take the viewer on a journey to Syria and the Middle East. I wanted the audience to know better the culture that I dearly treasure.

A Cup Of Nostalgia- Oil on Canvas. Photo Credit: Dima Kroma

Since then, I began to tell my stories during art exhibitions and through my social media. I see each of my stories as data with a soul; it travels through the heart in its own way to the mind of the audience to open up their heart. People engaged more with the stories through the paintings, and many showed interests in learning more about Syria and its culture that they knew so little about. Some people even told me that the paintings changed their perspective on the Middle East and that they wished they had learned about the stories  long ago.

Cardamom Rhythms- Oil on Canvas. Photo Credit: Dima Kroma

In 2019, at one of the art exhibitions I participated in, after telling stories about my paintings, I walked around the gallery to see the works by other artists. Then, in one corner of the crowded space,  I found a group of people gathering around a young man who was telling stories. I wanted to listen in, so I immediately joined the group. To my surprise, I realized that he was actually retelling my stories to share how he was inspired and moved by my artwork. He was being a messenger of my experience and stories to the people I had not met or known at all. In that moment, I realized that I had finally built a bridge between my culture and the world that didn’t know much about it before. This motivated me and gave me the power to keep doing what I did.During the COVID-19 pandemic, I am still building bridges online through social media. In addition to posting about my paintings and stories, I even started introducing the Middle Eastern culture and history to children by making drawing videos for kids on YouTube. I believe that our lives have a purpose and my passion for painting has helped me pursue this purpose.

Stories were collected and edited by @WeaveTales.  WeaveTales collects and share the stories of refugees around the world to correct misperceived narratives and empower refugees to find a safe home. www.weavetales.org

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