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Asylum Art: A Refugee From Egypt Hopes to Rekindle His Art Business in Richmond

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Younan Ghebrial is unscrolling one of his papyrus screen prints of Egyptian mythological figures in the window of Gallery Edit off Broad Street. As he looks at them, he appears nostalgic.

These are works he made in the 1990s featuring deities and hieroglyphs that Ghebrial had shipped from his native Egypt to Richmond, where he now lives and works as a janitor at Quirk Hotel.

His face tells you that the art reminds him of a different place and time, back when he still had a thriving family business, the Egyptian International Company for Papyrus, that he ran for 23 years. Before his business was sabotaged, he says, before he was forced to leave Al Jizah because he is a Coptic Christian.

A minority community with little representation in government, the roughly 10 million Coptic Christians in Egypt have been subject to ongoing discrimination and a spike in violence since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011. The most recent attacks to make global news were the shooting deaths of 29 Christians aboard a tour bus in May, including women and children, with the Islamic State claiming responsibility.

Ghebrial came to the United States in 2013 and applied for asylum. With the assistance of the International Rescue Committee, he began a 4-year process to move here legally (which IRC officials say is not unusual due to wait times). After three years, Ghebrial’s application was approved by a judge, and he came to the committee in Richmond in March 2016, landing the job at Quirk Hotel with hopes that it might help him restart his former career selling art.

Ghebrial’s family joined him in the United States in October and brought many of his paintings and other pieces that had been completed in Egypt. 

His first show, “Taking Refuge,” was held in February during First Fridays at Endeavor RVA studio. The exhibition was a success, with more than 500 people coming through the studio and more than a dozen pieces being purchased, according to Ian Hess, its creative director. Hess, who has worked closely with Ghebrial, says the artist was able to import hundreds more prints thanks to the money that he made from the show. The prints sell for $50 to $500 depending on the size.

“Now, with the whole family together and his art being displayed in a prominent venue, Mr. Ghebrial feels that he has reclaimed his identity,” wrote Stephen Allen, site coordinator for Richmond, in a committee report.

Ghebrial still speaks very little English, and his only translator was a local Lebanese friend on speakerphone, so interviewing him proved difficult. But he was excited to explain that in Egypt, he had produced a form of papyrus that is more resilient, flexible and accepting of paint than standard papyrus. It does not grow here, he says, so he must ship it from Egypt, but he has hopes to market it here, perhaps using it to create artistic wallets, purses — even notebooks, he says.

“Younan is a great guy, soft spoken, but when he does have something to say, it’s very profound,” says Sherrick Hill, a guest services agent at Quirk. “He does a little bit of everything here, anything needed. He jokes around with staff, always happy-go-lucky. He fits in really well and you can tell he’s really dedicated to his art.”

When asked about the persecution he faced at home and whether there are any solutions, Ghebrial’s translated answer has an edge of gallows humor: “Either all the Christians must leave, or all the Muslims must leave,” he says, laughing.

At least his sense of humor remains intact. Later, when asked how old he is, he quickly answers: “152.” Ghebrial says that living in Richmond has proven “a lot better,” and he plans to create new work here, but he is about to get double knee surgery so he won’t be able to walk for three months. His family has found a new church in Midlothian to worship, he says, though the name was unclear in translation.

Lisl Ruckert, a refugee care coordinator who works with Gallery Edit which is hosting Gherbrial’s new show, explains that the gallery is a place of faith “made up of Christians that love art and love God” who wanted to shine a light on the Coptic Christian situation in Egypt, as well as Ghebrial’s personal story.

Hess adds that Ghebrial wants not only to distribute his papyrus nationally, but that he also hopes to open an art and coffee shop on Broad Street. As an artist, he would like to continue creating new work by blending mythological themes of the past with his new life in Richmond.

“I know he wants to do a huge American flag,” he says. S

Younan Ghebrial’s “Out of Egypt” will be held Friday, July 7, from 6 to 9 p.m. (artist talk is at 6 p.m.) during First Fridays at Gallery Edit, 8 E. Broad St. Free. facebook.com/galleryedit.

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