• Johanna Lok

The Refugee Art Project.

Updated: Feb 13, 2019

Founded in 2010 by Sydney-based artist, musician and academic Safdar Ahmed, “The Refugee Art Project” was formed by a collective of artists concerned with the amount of refugees and asylum seekers waiting in detention centres in Australia. Their main goal: to bring awareness and support the many asylum seekers and refugees through a collection of art workshops, as well as putting on public shows to display their concerns to the Australian public.

When they first started, the art workshops were run at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre every weekend. Now, the art workshops in the community are on every Saturday afternoon in The Refugee Art Project’s North Parramatta studio. The organisation is run by volunteers and supported by their own fundraising, donations from the public and donated art materials. Anyone of a refugee background is welcome to join and it offers them a great chance at forming new friendships and connections.The workshop participants consist of men, women and children from all over the globe, from places such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Afghanistan. The refugees produce art, poetry and comics.

Safdar created a safe space in which the refugees could practice their creativity and have their own voice. Since the Refugee Art Project was created in 2010, many exhibitions and public events showcasing the refugees’ artworks were hosted for the community and their families, raising money for them in the process. The project has received support from many institutions and art galleries including the Mori Gallery in Sydney and The Institute for Creative Health, a non-profit Australian organisation that advocates for the arts to be delivered within health and social service organisations.


Art can do lots of things. It is a vehicle for self development, for personal expression and for the creation of inner worlds.” -Safdar Ahmed.

A powerful piece by Mona from The Refugee Project Women's Art Workshop

Refugee Art Project Zine Sale


Zine by Mohammad.

Safdar started the group in late 2010 with friends Bilquis Ghani and Omid Tofighian after just finishing his PhD in Islamic Studies. He wanted to go out into the real world and do something worthwhile of his time. When he visited the Villawood Detention Centre for the first time, he wondered if he could contribute in any way, so he asked if anybody wanted to draw with him.

He brought an abundance of different types of art materials and soon enough, an art group was formed within the centre. He stated that “the work that flowed from that was very powerful.”

Although Safdar has no personal experience of exile, because of his Indian Muslim family on this dad’s side that have been discriminated against, he feels empathetic towards asylum seekers and marginalised minorities. His concern about the large amount of asylum seekers stems from not wanting the higher people with power to walk all over them. He also believes that his own experiences of depression and recovery has lead him to believe that art can help people to express their difficulties and even help to better understand them.


Safdar says that the refugees are afraid to express themselves politically incase they get punished for it, or even get thrown back into detention. In a 2012 TedEx interview, Safdar states: "Our politicians over the years have often referred the refugees to unlawful entries and as cue jumpers etc. All of this creates a negative perception in the public mind. The media are not allowed into our detention centres. Asylum seekers have no access to the channels of communication that can give them a public voice." Safdar believes that by giving refugees a platform from which they are free to express themselves, they are able to clear up the misconceptions that people might have and deepen people's understanding of the refugee issue.

"Misery" by Mohammad. Pencil on paper.

One particular individual who has benefited from their art-making journey is Murtaza Ali Jafari, a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan who fled to Australia in 2010. He learned to draw in the Villawood Detention centre and even made a zine with The Refugee Art Project. Over the two years when Murtaza was locked up in Villawood, he made a lot of art and his style became progressively more graphic and intense. He says that art helped him cope with the stress of living in detention, and gave him something to feel proud of. I think Murtaza's work is beautiful and he effectively conveys his inner thoughts and emotions to his audience.

"The Fence" by Murtaza Ali Jafari. Ink and watercolour on paper.

"Immigration" by Murtaza Ali Jafari. Pen and ink on paper.

The best way people can help The Refugee Art Project is by making a financial donation to their organisation, to help pay for art materials and keep their workshops going. To find out more, click here.



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