Khaled Youssef, the doctor, writer, and photographer who helped us to make the Flight: Explorations in Movement, Migration, and Freedom exhibition a reality this past spring, has spent the last several months helping to bring more Syrian artwork to Vermont through two exhibitions in Rutland and Castleton. Several public presentations discussing the evolution of Syrian art were scheduled in conjunction with the exhibitions in both towns, but all speaking engagements have been canceled in light of Khaled’s difficulty obtaining a visa as a Syrian national. Khaled, ever the poet, wrote an open letter to Vermonters that we’d like to share with you here.
The events were coming closer and closer, and I have been excited about them; visiting Vermont, discovering your State and your cities, exchanging with all of you experiences, culture and art. I have heard a lot about Vermont, not only about its beautiful “green mountains” but also about its nice and sensitive open-minded people, forward thinkers and passionate advocate for justice; people who share humanistic beliefs and values by now receiving hundred of my compatriots escaping the atrocities of the war, to give them a new chance to live in a free society.
I am very honoured that the University of Castleton and the city of Rutland trusted me and our non-for-profit association “SYRIA.ART” to help in the organization of a cultural program about art from Syria.
With curator William Ramage we have been working on diverse events including exhibitions and conferences. We have planned several meetings with your community. I was looking forward to these exhibitions and conferences and to a lively exchange with wonderfully diverse participants, professors, students, volunteers and inhabitants. As a photographer I was also looking forward to making my “bubbles” photographs with children in schools, while seeing wonderment in their eyes.
Everything was prepared for me to spend two weeks in your company and to be your guest; dates were fixed and flights booked. As a French citizen, I used to come to the United States with a simple electronic visa (ESTA) which needed 24 hours to be registered. Actually I have been four times in the USA in different places and for different purposes: medical conferences, tourism, and art exhibitions. I have some great memories of wonderful places and friendly people in your country. Few days ago I applied for the ESTA, the answer came quickly and it was refused!
The surprise was equal to the sadness; rules have changed few months ago and having the double nationality ‒being also Syrian by birth‒ do not allow me anymore to use this system as I need now a visa from the US-Embassy in Paris, which demand takes usually 3 months. As I did not want to miss our events and your hospitality, I tried to do my very best to get a visa, but appointments were late, too late to be able to respect my engagements with your community. Despite our efforts to make it happen, there was nothing to do; we had to cancel my visit. In addition to my disappointment to be unable to complete what we started and to be with you, I had a strange feeling. I am the same person who traveled before peacefully to the USA! So it seemed to me as if my place of birth would condemn me in a way, as if the war in Syria were detrimental to us Syrians even in the greatest distance, and even though trying to spread a message of Peace and to use Art as a weapon of peace against tears and violence.
Yet rules are rules, I do understand and respect them, especially when security is concerned.
I am a traveller; I spent half of my life living in Syria and half living in France. Being Syrian by birth and French by love was a natural result of circumstances in my life. I believe that there is only one race and one religion in this world and it is Humanity. I had the chance to visit tens of countries around the world, discovering the beauty of people and the quality of human beings; the differences I have seen were up to make me believe of how it is important to get together, to exchange, and to appreciate our differences as much as our similarities.
The question of identity was resolved for me since I understood that identity does not lay in birth or blood, but is a continuous evolution built with experiences during the whole life. Each travel, each journey and each exchange allowed me to cross a new border inside my soul and to give more sense to my existence.
Borders exist in the administrative institutions, and sometimes in the head of people as imaginary lines, but Art is like the sun, it has no borders, all horizons are open for it. This is the reason why I will be with you against all odds with my photographs and with my spirit and heart that, for their part, need no visa.
I would love to be with you, to share the history of Syrian art with you and to learn from you. We will keep going on and will find the best way to share with you the history of the Syrian modern and contemporary art and the evolution of female Syrian artists.
Also, two exhibitions are going to take place in Castleton and Rutland, more than one hundred artworks coming from far destinations inside and outside Syria, created by renowned established Syrian artists and by young Syrian talented artists.
I am entrusting you lines and colours, reflections and movements, impressions and ideas. This will be our presence, these will be our ambassadors in Vermont, and I hope you will appreciate them.
Thank you for your confidence and understanding and thank you for your participation in saving Humanity by encouraging its best expression: Art and Culture.