Stories of Change

Mehrdad paints as part of a CWS program in Bosnia.

Finding an unexpected love of art

“Shiraz [Iran] is my city. I was born there, and I grew up there. When I would leave Shiraz, I always knew I would come back to my city. But today I’m not sure I will ever see Shiraz again,” says Mehrdad Azizi.

Mehrdad comes from a family of five children. “When I was 12 years old, my father left us,” he says. “My mother worked very hard to raise my two brothers, two sisters and me.” It wasn’t long, though, before Mehrdad realized that his mom needed help providing for the family. Despite being the second youngest child and merely a teenager, he got a job. “I became a welder. I would go to school and I would work…I became a head of our household.” He used his first paycheck to buy himself a mobile phone, and then he spent his earnings to cover household expenses for his family.

“I’ve always loved sports,” Mehrdad says. In his free time, he took up kickboxing. “That gave me an opportunity to travel and explore foreign countries. That’s how I traveled to Europe for the very first time. France. On that trip I fell in love with Europe. I returned home to Iran, but I was pretty sure that I would be back someday.”

The sense of responsibility that Mehrdad feels for his family runs deep. His older brother became a drug addict, and in a moment of crisis he set the family’s house on fire. “In the end, everybody gave up on him,”Mehrdad says. “But not me. I believed in him; I believed that he could be saved. Today is a happily married man, and he doesn’t use any kind of drugs.”

Mehrdad struggled with verbal and physical abuse from extended family members, and Europe remained a beacon of hope in his mind. In 2015, he and his cousin got visas to go to Europe. He made his first attempt in 2016, but as he was crossing into Serbia, one of his sisters called in tears and begged him to return home. Even though he had sunk significant time, effort and money into the journey, he returned to his family.

In 2018, he made his final decision. He wanted a life free of abuse where he would be treated as a human being, live normally and hopefully start a family one day. He had to get to Europe, and he wouldn’t be returning to Iran. “In Iran, I couldn’t have that life,” he says. He left with his cousin; his uncle was helping them pay for the trip. When they were crossing the border from Slovenia into Italy, his cousin got injured. “All the people from the group were telling me to go, to leave him behind,” Mehrdad says. “I was just a few kilometers away from Italy. But I couldn’t leave him. I stayed with him. Police caught us and deported us. Then another disaster struck: inflation in Iran. My uncle couldn’t help me with money. His son, my cousin, reached Europe, but I was stuck in Bosnia.”

“Now it’s been more than a year since I got to Bosnia. It was here that I discovered my love for art,” Mehrdad says. One day he came to the CWS program for migrants and refugees in Bosnia. In addition to the other program activities, Mehrdad stayed for a creative activity. “I took a paper and brush, and I started making moves with my hand. I forgot everything. In that moment, the only thing that existed in this world were that paper and brush. I was surprised by my talent. I never knew I had it. And the most important thing is that painting relaxed me. When I would start painting, I would forget all my problems and worries. So, I started coming to the CWS place regularly,” he says.

There were a couple of weeks when Mehrdad was having a really tough time. “While I was talking to the CWS team about it, they told me to come and visit them again after lunch,” Mehrdad says. When he came back, he found his paintings on display in front of the CWS program area. “They made an exhibition. I was really surprised. Everyone came to see it—staff and migrants and refugees. In that moment, I felt really happy and fulfilled. I will always be grateful to the CWS team that helped me discover my love and talent for art,” he says.

Mehrdad still plans to get to Europe. He says, “Now my goal is to reach England and to bring my mother there. I am planning to continue painting as a hobby. But maybe one day I will even become a professional artist and you will see my art in galleries. Who knows.”