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Residents of small B.C. town help Syrian refugee realize artistic dreams

A Syrian refugee is launching a new career as an artist in a remote community in northeast B.C., forging works out of copper and donated metals in a style he learned as a child.

Isam Sharkiye creates hammered copper art pieces and sculptures in Fort Nelson, B.C.

A pair of copper bracelets made out of an old pipe donated to Isam Sharkiye. (Sandy McLean)

A Syrian refugee is launching a new career as an artist in a remote community in northeast B.C., forging works out of copper and donated metals in a style he learned as a child. 

Isam Sharkiye, 35, and his family arrived in Canada in August. They were the first Syrian refugees to be sponsored in Fort Nelson, B.C., a small oil and gas town near the Yukon border.

Despite being in the midst of an extended economic downturn, community members had spent the previous two years fundraising to sponsor a family who would be suited to life in northeast B.C.

The Sharkiye family celebrating their first Christmas in Fort Nelson. (Sandy McLean)

"Because Fort Nelson's remote … we needed a family with few medical issues, so it was really just luck or fate or divine intervention that brought this family and us together," said Sandy McLean, one of the community members helping the Sharkiyes get settled.

Shortly after arriving, Isam Sharkiye started collecting equipment from scrap yards. One community member donated a piece of copper, and Sharkiye created his first work in Canada.

"It's amazing," McLean said. "It is something so unique, so beautiful."

A commissioned piece by Sharkiye, depicting the Fort Nelson Heritage Museum. (Sandy McLean)

Sharkiye learned the art from his uncle when he was about 11 years old, working on projects that were shipped around Syria and to other countries. However, that career was put on hold with the outbreak of conflict in the region and he turned to odd jobs such as taxi driving and working in grocery stores.

As the conflict worsened, Sharkiye was shot and family members were killed, so he and his wife and children fled. They walked roughly 1,000 kilometers to Turkey, where they stayed until they were accepted into Canada.

Sharkiye embraces one of his sponsors upon arriving in Fort Nelson, B.C. (Sandy McLean)

When they saw his artistic skill, the community banded together to support his endeavour. McLean set him up with a Facebook page and his work was sold in community craft fairs leading up to Christmas. The local activity centre has donated space where he can work, while others are commissioning pieces and donating materials. 

At the moment, all the money raised is going into buying materials for Sharkiye's work and helping the family get established in Fort Nelson, but he hopes to turn his art into a viable career.

Isam Sharkiye's booth at a Fort Nelson craft fair. (Sandy McLean)
Depending on the piece, it can take Sharkiye anywhere from a few hours to weeks to complete a project. (Sandy McLean)

Another long-term goal is to speak fluent English, but Sharkiye has learned enough to express how he feels about being in Canada working on art again.

"I am very happy for my work... and that people here like my work," he said. 

With files from Rachel Sanders

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

@akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is a radio producer and digital journalist in northern British Columbia, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George. Email: andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca | Twitter: @akurjata | Secure PGP: http://www.akurjata.ca