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Immigration caseworker teaches art to newcomers

Exhibition to be held at the Halifax Central Library on Dec. 14

3 min read
caption A canvas quilt made by the members of the "Art of Belonging" workshop.
Regina Peters
A canvas quilt made by the members of the "Art of Belonging" workshop.
caption A canvas quilt made by the members of the Art of Belonging workshop.
Regina Peters

Every year, Iranian-Canadian painter Mahnaz Sobhani teaches a drawing and painting workshop called The Art of Belonging to immigrants.

The free eight-week course takes place at the Halifax Central Library, and ends with an exhibition of the students’ artwork. This year’s exhibition will be held at the library on Dec. 14, from 6 p.m to 8 p.m.

In her day job, Sobhani is a caseworker for the Immigrant Services Association of Canada. Five years ago, she decided to combine her two vocations.

“There’s always a waiting list (for the course),” she says. “It’s like being a kid in a candy store; (it’s) not just painting, but teaching.”

Mahnaz Sobhani says she and her students enjoy the lessons because they are able to form relationships and make connections.

“It creates a sense of community,” says Kumala Sobhani, Mahnaz’s sister-in-law who is from Sri Lanka. She signed up for the course for the first time this year.

“We all know each other and share in the same goals,” she says.

Mahnaz Sobhani left her home country of Iran, at 16. She earned an art degree in Spain and travelled extensively before coming to Canada in 1984. She says her own immigration experience was not too difficult, since she was young and naturally outgoing so people she met accepted her.

“I never felt like I was outside,” she says.

She missed her family at first, but now has several relatives close by, including her mother, a husband and in-laws and a brother in Washington. Still, she says that adapting to a foreign culture is always difficult.

“The process of immigration, though it appears easy, is really very hard,” she says. “You can’t imagine how hard it is to leave behind everything you know.”

One of this year’s projects was drawing mandalas or circular, repetitive patterns used in Buddhist meditation.

“When you’re drawing, you’re in the zone,” says Kumala Sobhani.

Mahnaz Sobhani says she works 24 hours a day with immigrants when she is at her job with ISANS and teaching the workshop, but she isn’t overworked. Painting and teaching serve as outlets for work-related stress.

“Art is my mental health,” she says.

For her, thinking creatively makes it easier to solve problems in other areas of her life. For example, her last class on Nov. 29 was about bringing diverse elements together in different ways. The 14 workshop members, from 10 to 15 nations, each painted a small canvas square. The subjects and colours were the painter’s choice and all of the pieces sewed together into a quilt.

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