'I paint to forget': A refugee turns to art on Nauru


After being in detention for almost four years on Nauru, Iraqi refugee Abbas al Aboudi has turned to art and is now taking commissions.

Iraqi refugee Abbas al Aboudi often spends his days staring out across the vast ocean in what he describes as "purgatory" - feeling stranded in a prison encircled by water.

The 28-year-old has lived in detention on the tiny Pacific Island nation of Nauru, 3,000 kilometres northeast of Cairns, for nearly four years.

A drive around the coast takes less than half an hour - Nauru measures just 6km across at its widest point - and Abbas shares the island with 10,000 locals and more than 1,100 fellow refugees and asylum seekers.

Australia has made several attempts to negotiate third country resettlement deals but many people remain in immigration limbo. The United Nations has expressed concern amid reports of violence, sexual assault and self-harm on Nauru. 

A painting by Abbas al Aboudi.
Abbas al Aboudi

"I paint to forget"

Abbas told SBS News that not being able to see a future is torturous, but he and other detainees are determined to battle against the odds. Some have opened cafes and restaurants, while one man runs an electronics repair service.

The former plasterer in Iraq has now rekindled his childhood passion - art. He accepts online commissions for his paintings which sell for between $150 to $300 on Facebook and Etsy. 

“Sometimes I like painting natural things, the beauty gives me hope, and sometimes I paint about the situation here on Nauru,” he said. “Sometimes I paint to try to forget where I am.”

Artwork by Abbas al Aboudi
Abbas's painting of Malcolm Turnbull as a refugee.
Abbas al Aboudi

The refugee said he turns on Middle Eastern pop music and loses himself in his work. He has painted galloping horses in open fields, car bombings in Iraq, biblical scenes, children behind bars and self-portraits.

One of his most meaningful paintings was of fellow refugee, Omid Masoumali, who took his life during a UN inspection of the Nauru detention centre in 2016. A recent Amnesty International report found that 15 per cent of detainees on the island had either attempted suicide or had thoughts of harming themselves.

Abbas’ favourite art work, titled 'There is No Way,' is a dark self-portrait that shows him sitting with his back against a rock, head in hands and waves beating the shore beside him. He has described it as a study of "hopelessness".

In a pair of unnamed portraits, Abbas has painted the politicians who he holds responsible for the policies which have kept him on Nauru: Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Minister for Home Affairs (formerly Immigration Minister) Peter Dutton. Both men are reimagined as refugees in his paintings. Mr Turnbull is depicted carrying a child in a lifejacket and Mr Dutton is seen holding a sign that reads: ‘Close the camps. End mandatory detention.’

“Nothing to insult them,” Abbas told SBS News. “I just made them like us.” 

A painting by Abbas al Aboudi
Peter Dutton reimagined as a refugee.
Abbas al Aboudi

Desperate voyage

In mid-2013, during an upsurge in violence in Iraq, Abbas said he was forced to flee threats in his hometown Baghdad leaving behind his mother and siblings.

He flew to Indonesia and paid around $13,000 to board a people-smuggling boat to Australia. After several days at sea, the boat was intercepted by Australian authorities. Abbas was transferred to Christmas Island and then Nauru.

In October 2015, 18 months into his detention, the camp was opened days before a High Court challenge against offshore processing. Detainees were released into the relative freedom of the broader 21 square kilometre island.

Abbas and many others now live outside of the facility but he says, “I am still in the hell." 

Abbas al Aboudi
Abbas, inset, and one of his self-portraits.
Abbas al Aboudi

Abbas could not have reignited his passion for art without the help of Tasmanian woman Turid Hopwood who sent him canvases, paint and brushes not long after he arrived on Nauru. 

“I got the impression that they had a lot of time and not much to do with it,” said Ms Hopwood.

The 60-year-old mental health nurse said she heard through a friend that there was a refugee who was depressed and thought she could help. She fundraised and sought donations from art supply stores. Since then, Abbas has been buying his own supplies on eBay. He also works as a tattoo artist and mural painter.

Jack Luan
Jack Luan at work.
Abbas al Aboudi

Abbas is not the only person in offshore detention turning to art. On Manus Island, self-taught Iranian Jack Luan also sells paintings of swirling colour and haunting imagery via his Facebook page. 

Safdar Ahmed, co-founder of a Sydney-based refugee art group said: “Given there are very few employment opportunities, both those guys are trying to promote their work to as many people as possible.” 

“Abbas is in this dire situation where he’s forcibly taken to this island, where no one wants to be, and he’s used social media and his ingenuity to do something for himself … It’s quite admirable really.” 

“Art and culture are ways of showing that there’s a lot more to a person than being a persecuted refugee,” Mr Ahmed said.

Cartoonist Ali Dorani, who goes by the pseudonym ‘Eaten Fish’, was also living on Manus Island until late last year when an international artist refugee group sponsored him to be resettled in northern Europe. 

'What is my guilt?'

Safdar Ahmed's favourite work by Abbas is his portrait of Mr Dutton.

“That was a beauty,” he said. “It’s a way of showing that if only for the lottery of birth, this could have been you.”

From Nauru, Abbas follows the violence in Iraq but still remains disillusioned by his own situation. His feelings of discouragement are revealed in a painting of a child looking through a chain-link fenced, titled, ‘What is my guilt?’ 

An image painted by Abbas al Aboudi
Abbas al Aboudi

The Iraqi refugee is now pinning his hopes on being resettled in the United States. 

“I hope soon I’ll leave,” he said. 

Abbas and his partner, an Iranian woman he met on Nauru, are hoping to be selected for transfer under a resettlement deal struck by the Turnbull government and the Obama administration. US President Donald Trump has called it a “dumb deal,” however 170 refugees from Manus and Nauru have been resettled in the US under the arrangement, with more intakes expected later this year.  

When asked about Abbas’s situation, a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs told SBS News: “The resettlement and return options available to transferees in Nauru and Papua New Guinea are well known. Transferees are well aware of their options.”

All Abbas can do for now is wait patiently and paint.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467, and MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78.

Multicultural Mental Health Australia

Local Aboriginal Medical Service details available from

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