We first met Ms. Jamila Alhaib, a noted abstract artist, at the CAMEO holiday party at the Kan Zaman Restaurant in Cleveland where she accompanied our mutual friend, Ms. Cindy David who introduced us to her. We talked to Ms. Alhaib for a while and were very impressed by her successful efforts helping fellow artists obtain visas so that they might visit the United States and exhibit their art. We wanted to talk to Ms. Alhaib some more so we arranged to meet her the first week in of January at a Panera’s in Fairlawn where we shared some coffee and good conversation.
Ms. Alhaib is a Palestinian who was born in the Galilee region. She first came to the United States in 1991 along with her children and her ex-husband, Dr. Falah, a Fulbright Scholar and professor of political geography, who had been invited to teach at the University of in Cedar Falls Iowa.
At that time, Ms. Alhaib was not an artist but had taught kindergarten in her village of Tuba, Galilee for a while. Initially, it was difficult making the transition from a small village in Galilee to the U.S. largely because she spoke very little English. She also had trouble finding all kinds of middle eastern food and wasn’t used to living in a place where one needed to own a car just to be mobile. Plus, in her village, people are used to just “dropping in” on their friends but in the U.S. this is less common and visits are customarily pre-arranged.
After two years, Professor Falah and his family moved again, this time to Canada where he taught at the University of Toronto. Ms. Alhaib really liked Toronto because its public transportation system made things very accessible and it was very multicultural and the number of stores/restaurants offering Middle Eastern food made her feel at home. Plus the health system was amazing and free. She attended adult high school in Toronto because she was inspired to learn more about our society and was thinking of starting a new career, possibly as a graphic designer or a photographer. All told, the family spent eight and a half years in Toronto and Ms. Alhaib earned her high school diploma in 2000.
In 2001, however, they moved again this time to Akron, Ohio, where Professor Falah had secured a teaching position at the University of Akron. Ms. Alhaib wanted to continue her education but was no longer sure she wanted to be a graphic designer. Nevertheless, she registered for all sorts of art classes (photography, print making, drawing, painting, calligraphy, etc.) and greatly impressed her instructors.
In fact, Professor Laura Vinnedge said, “Jamila, your hand was born for the brush.” Professor Mark Soppeland urged her to study for a degree because he believed that Ms. Alhaib had “something special” and in the summer of 2013 she obtained a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts. While she was at student, she had some of her works displayed at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Two years in a row, she had paintings displayed at the GAR foundation in Akron where she won first place in a judged show.
Ms. Alhaib told us, “After I finished my degree, I went through a divorce which occupied two years of my life. Then I began working on my own art to embrace the work so that I could perform and find my true skills. Then I decided to do something to help myself so I decided to do my first solo exhibition which occurred in April, 2015 at the Zeber-Martell Gallery in Akron. To me that was the beginning of a new lifestyle. On the same day of the Akron show, I received an invitation to travel to Algeria to be part of a symposium team for a week. Honestly, that made my day and helped me look at the world in a positive way.”
Our conversation turned to the work that she has done to help others. As we mentioned earlier, starting in January of 2016, Ms. Alhaib has helped perhaps a total of more than 25 artists from African countries (Morocco, Algeria and Egypt) and Middle Eastern countries (Lebanon, Dubai, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq and Syria) get visas ranging from two to ten year periods which have enabled them to take an active part in U.S. art exhibitions. Of great assistance to her was the City of Akron which issued invites to the international artists which proved to be immensely helpful in moving along the often cumbersome process.
The first show that she organized in which the international artists took part was titled The Other Face and took place at the Summit Artspace on May 5th-10th, 2016. One of the guests there was Mr. Daniel Horrigan, the newly elected mayor of Akron who had attended the opening ceremony and ribbon cutting. Some of her professors and students from the university were there too. It was very successful and all who took part loved it. Ms. Alhaib decided to locate the first exhibition in Akron because she believed that she owed the University of Akron a “thank you” for helping her obtain her degree and in order to show her appreciation to the professors who encouraged her to go for a degree and “be the person who I am right now.”
Ten days later, another show that Ms. Alhaib organized took place in the Dacia Gallery in Manhattan and featured different works by the same artists. All told, the works of 120 artists were featured in just two shows. Not all of them could make appearances at both shows, however, but they still sent their work.
In August of 2016, Ms. Alhaib took part in One World Day at the Cleveland Cultural Gardens, displaying works from 40 artists, mostly from Lebanon and Syria, in the Lebanese Garden. Five artists from Lebanon attended the exhibition. Soon afterwards, she put together a show at the Areej Gallery in Toronto on September 18th that featured the works of 50 international artists. Ms. Alhaib smiled as she told us that this show was particularly memorable because most of the artists did obtain visas to travel to Canada but the visas were not granted until after the show was over.
As far as plans for the future, a show is scheduled to take place in Cleveland in May, 2017 and our friend Mr. Pierre Bejjani, the president of CAMEO, is helping Ms. Alhaib find an appropriate venue for it. Another show is in the development process for September, 2017 in Michigan which will again feature U.S. and international artists.
In addition, “The Other Face” exhibition going to be in many US States and Canada to let the world learn about Middle Eastern Art and to build a bridge between the Arab world and North America.
Ms. Alhaib, herself, is fluent in three languages, Arabic, English, and Hebrew, and travels throughout the world to display her own art. In 2016 she went to Lebanon, Turkey, Florida, Michigan, and Algeria and in 2017 plans to visit Paris, Morocco, Canada and Tunisia.
Ms. Alhaib became a U.S. citizen in 2015 and, even though she is also a citizen of Canada, she now considers the United States her home and, despite the rocky start in Iowa, loves it here mainly because one has more choices regarding life and career than one has in other countries. She also likes it that in the United States education and medical services are more accessible.
Every year, though, she returns to visit the people that she loves and considers the village where she lived the early part of her life to be part of her “family.”
As far as relatives in close geographical proximity to her, she is the proud mother of four sons. The oldest graduated from the University of Akron and now lives in Toronto where he owns Falah Contracting Group. The second oldest lives in Cuyahoga Falls and owns a logistics company. Finally, her youngest lives in Akron, sells real estate, & attends the University of Akron. Sadly, Ms. Alhaib’s fourth son died from injuries sustained in a car accident.
We talked for a while about how she would describe herself. Of course, she is an artist and organizer of exhibits, but after a moment’s deliberation, we came up with “nurturer of other artists and their talent.” We think that this is truly her “something special.”>