MURHAF Obeid, packing his bag to fly from Lebanon to Australia, had first thoughts, not for toothbrush, clothes or shoes, but for his art.
It was about a year ago, and the Syrian refugee was preparing to fly out with his wife Rim and their sons Michel, now four, and Marc, one.
Among thousands of people forced to flee the region in the wake of ISIS’ brutal takeover of large parts of Syria and Iraq, the Obeids were desperate for a new life in Australia.
And life, for Murhaf, has to include art and especially his love of painting icons.
“Actually the first thing I put in my bag when I start to prepare to come to Australia, I put all the colours and all the brushes and the icons that I (had written) in my bag,” he said as he told his story at the family’s home in Brendale on Brisbane’s northern outskirts.
“So, yes, (iconography is) important, because, for me, it’s not just kind of work or a way to get money or to get a living; it’s part of the meaning of my life, as a Christian, to know God.”
Murhaf is totally devoted to Rim and their sons, and Christian faith and art are central to who he is.
All are intertwined.
“Drawing has been my hobby since I was a kid,” he said.
That went to a new level when he entered the St Paul Convent, a monastery of the Missionaries of Saint Paul in Harissa, Lebanon.
He had lived in Homs, Syria, until then and he intended to become a monk with the Paulists.
“I started to study philosophy and theology at the convent (from 2001) till 2009,” he said.
“When I went to the convent in Lebanon a priest there helped me and pushed me to know more about paintings.
“So I continued my hobby, but a little more professionally, because, before that, I couldn’t buy oil colours and all these materials but the convent helped me to buy all these things.”
He also had six months’ training with an iconographer and he reached the stage of being able to paint icons for the convent.
Master sessions with iconographers in Belarus followed so Murhaf became familiar with the finer points of the art – the colours, symbols, spirituality and the use of gold leaf .
After leaving the monastery, Murhaf worked in Lebanon for two years before he and Rim were married.
They were married back in Syria in 2011 and were intending to make their home there but war was to change that.
The couple fled Syria and lived in Lebanon for five years before being accepted into Australia.
The young couple thanks God for their blessings.
“We feel like God wanted us to come here …,” Murhaf said.
“… Because as I studied philosophy and theology and I was used to dealing with icons so I was used to dealing with God as the main idea of our life, so He guides us and He wants the better for our life.
“Every time we (have a decision to make), we just ask Him to lead us and to let us do what he wants – what’s better for Him and for us – and we believe He always (wants) better for us.
“So that’s why we believe … we are here in Australia because He wants us to be … And we can feel His hand in every stage of our lives.”
It’s an attitude showing through in the beautiful oil paintings Murhaf has produced since being in Brisbane.
“I keep trying to put meaning in my paintings,” he said.
He described one of a field of poppies – called “Windflower” – which relates to war and Anzac Day.
“I wrote that, in Australia, there’s just one Anzac Day and in Syria we have so many Anzac Days because people keep killing and keep dying,” he said.
“When you keep doing the icons you keep searching about the meaning and the spiritual meaning and the deeper meanings, and I start to put meaning in my oil paintings.
“(In another painting – “Apricot Blossom” – of a tree covered in Syrian apricot blossoms) the background is the map of Australia, … so I try to say that we are Syrians who came to Australia; we are not just refugees and we are just people who need help; we can get like these trees (flourishing).
“Even though they came through a bad winter, but there’s a spring and summer, so even if we lived part of our lives through a very bad winter with ISIS and all these things but we are still like trees; we can give again and we can live again.”
Murhaf has had his paintings and icons in several exhibitions around Brisbane, including one at Australian Catholic University; another in Fortitude Valley, where one of his oil paintings picked up a third placing; and at the Nundah Art Show.
But it is his icons that mean most to him.
“I really like when Jesus asked Peter to just go to the deep when he failed to catch fish, and (Jesus) asked him just ‘go deeper, go deeper’, so I feel like icons, for me, it’s a kind of (invitation from God to) ‘go deeper’,” Murhaf said.