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Iraqi refugee artist Sameer Dakhil draws inspiration from new home in Australia

Sameer Dakhil dressed in a navy jacket and shirt holds a golden pen he carved.
Engraver and sculptor Sameer Dakhil's family have been goldsmiths in Iraq for more than 600 years.

ABC RN: Jennifer Wong

One afternoon in Jordan, Sameer Dakhil answered the phone and the first word he heard was "congratulations".

At first he thought it was a prank, but then the voice continued: "This is the Australian Government. You have been granted a visa."

"I was very happy," Dakhil says. "No-one can describe the happiness."

Dakhil is an engraver and sculptor from Iraq, where his family have been goldsmiths for more than 600 years. They are Mandaean — followers of John the Baptist.

In May 2016, Dakhil and his wife Lona arrived in Sydney. They had been living in Jordan for two years as refugees.

Since he arrived, Dakhil has shown his work at three art exhibitions in Sydney — the latest, Singular/Plural, a group exhibition at Redfern's 107 Projects.

Marking a new start

Even at the moment he received his humanitarian visa, Dakhil's artist's brain was ticking away.

"I started to think what should I give to this lovely country. And I thought about a pen," he says.

"It must represent the gratitude from me to Australia. It must be perfect."

Dakhil says the hardest part of engraving and sculpting for him is the design — how to draw thoughts and memories, how to decide what to take away — rather than the actual carving, which he's been doing for more than 35 years.

For two weeks after the phone call, Dakhil worked on the pen. He sat at a small table with a lamp and his tools.

Close up of Sameer Dakhil's hands holding a golden carved pen.
Dakhil engraved his pen with the words "thank you Australia" in English and Arabic.

ABC RN: Jennifer Wong

He thought about the pen used to sign his papers, allowing him to come to Australia, and he thought about his new home.

He bought some copper, cleaned it and polished it. Then he put on his magnifying glass, picked up a drill with the carbide tungsten tip, and began engraving.

'My thinking about this country'

The design began with a star, because there is a large star on the Australian flag. The star is surrounded by roots and branches.

"Because Australia has lots of races and different people, I started to make branches, a lot of branches," he says.

"And in the branches goes the Arabic words 'shukran Australia'. In Arabic it means 'thank you Australia'."

He carefully unscrews the lid of the pen to reveal neatly engraved capital letters in English.

"I wrote 'thank you' in English and Arabic. It means there is a new Arabic man in Australia," he says.

Along with carvings of branches and roots, leaves trace their way around the heavy copper cylinder.

"They are all leaves from China, from Vietnam, from Iraq, from Syria, they are all leaves, all beautiful leaves. So it's kind of my thinking about this country," he says.

Artworks old and new

This year, when Dakhil was invited by Settlement Services International to exhibit his work at Singular/Plural, he decided to make something he'd first had the idea for 20 years ago.

"I made this eagle leg holding an egg, and I designed it as 'hold onto your dreams'. I didn't make it in '97. I will make it another time."

The miniature brass carvings are tiny, even smaller than a Monopoly piece. Designing and sketching aside, they can take about three hours to make.

First, Dakhil draws on a bar of brass. Then he carves away at the bar bit by bit, then scratches the sculpture for half an hour "to make it beautiful".

Another piece was inspired by Anzac Day. "When I saw it, I really nearly cried," Dakhil says. "Very brave men … died for their country."

He engraved the words from Laurence Binyon's poem For the Fallen onto a diamond-shaped plaque decorated with flowers.

"I went to war about 10 years, I saw people die," Dakhil says.

"Friends of mine died. They are all immortals. I thought of the poem and I started to work with it. For me, they are immortals."

Seeking meaning in heritage

Looking for work has been Dakhil's priority since arriving in Australia, and with the support of Settlement Services International he has set up a small engraving business at his home in Warwick Farm in Sydney's south-west.

At first he was unsure how his art would be received.

"I know some countries think about art only as paintings. This is all about art, nothing else," he says.

He holds up a small brass didgeridoo he made based on photos.

"I'm looking for this kind of heritage: names, Aboriginal instruments, that kind of thing," he says.

Close up of Sameer Dakhil's hands. He is holding three brass miniature figures: two chairs and a didgeridoo.
Miniature like these chairs and didgeridoo take several hours to carve and scratch.

ABC RN: Jennifer Wong

"But you know, I'm still fresh, only one year. I need a lot of years to learn the ways of Australian people."

He is frank about the past and his current reality.

"Because we are brought up in hard situations, I think that sometimes makes an artist — or makes someone a bad person," he says.

"I'm inside a very peaceful human being, but sometimes the way you start living, it's harsh.

"[But] I know I'll have a good life in Australia. I'm sure of it. Because my relatives in Australia, they have this good life."