March 20 marks the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Despite having to flee his home due to the effects of the war, Yaroub Al-Obaidi, an artist and scholar from Diyala, Iraq, has committed his life to building bridges and restoring peace, from working with U.S. veterans of the war and refugees from the Middle East trying to restart their lives to continuing his personal growth through his art and education.
Penn Today spoke with Al-Obaidi, who settled in Philadelphia in 2016 and is a Global Guide and educator at the Penn Museum, where he offers thought-provoking tours through the Middle East Galleries, giving history and personal lessons about the region.
Yaroub Al-Obaidi didn’t flee Iraq when the United States invaded on March 20, 2003. He was in his second year of writing his thesis for his master’s degree at the University of Baghdad College of Fine Arts. He didn’t flee when the university’s library was burned and looted. He didn’t flee when he escaped car bombings or when he was inadvertently caught in violent clashes on the streets. He kept working and earned his master’s degree in 2004 and started his career as a lecturer at his university, he recounts.
But in 2007, when his mother told him that armed men came to their home asking for his whereabouts, insisting that his focus on art was a sin, he says he knew it was time to go. He registered with the United Nations, hoping to eventually come to the U.S., but first fled to Syria. As the situation there became unstable, he was offered a job in Malaysia as an interpreter and translator for a trading company that needed his English and Arabic skills. He transformed from artist to businessman and spent nine years in Malaysia before he finally was able to come to the U.S. in 2016, making his way to Philadelphia.
A resettlement agency in Philadelphia, Al-Obaidi says, connected him with Michael Rakowitz, an Iraqi-American artist. Rakowitz was working on a project called Radio Silence, a participatory performance project presented by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program involving American veterans from the war and the Iraqi refugee community.
“He invited me to be a part of his project, and that was the first time I came back to being an artist,” Al-Obaidi says.
At the time, the deadly crisis of migrants fleeing Africa and the Middle East across the Mediterranean to Europe was reaching a head and led him to create a sort of superhero character that could save them all, coming up with “Dolphin Man.” He says the character was inspired by stories that dolphins helped save and lead rescuers to Cuban migrant Elián González. The Radio Silence project also involved a performance with U.S. veterans from the war in Iraq sharing their stories alongside displaced Iraqis, including Al-Obaidi.
His involvement in art and creative projects just snowballed from there, he says. He was invited to take part in a project envisioned by Swarthmore College Libraries and Swarthmore’s Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility called Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary. It brought book artists into conversation with Syrians and Iraqis who had resettled to Philadelphia. Driven by questions about displacement and refuge, history, and experience, the project explored art’s capacity to build empathy and create a deeper sense of belonging. The project resulted in exhibitions in 2019 at Swarthmore, three locations in Philadelphia, and Brooklyn, according to the project’s website. His contribution was a recreation of the Penn Museum’s Queen Puabi display using found objects symbolizing the current state of Baghdad and was displayed in Philadelphia’s City Hall. He’s also editor of an Arabic-English newspaper called Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary.
In 2018, he noticed a position for a Global Guide at the Penn Museum and thought he would be a good fit.
“The Global Guides program is an important initiative to share often untold narratives from immigrant and refugee communities from the regions of the world represented in the Museum’s collections. Penn Museum is known for artifacts from ancient civilizations, but these objects also really connect to the contemporary descendant communities from those parts of the world,” says Jennifer Brehm, the Merle-Smith Director of Learning and Community Engagement at the Museum. “The program provides an important way for our Global Guides to share moments they feel are important to them and use the artifacts as the context for those memories. My hope is that through this program we can create a greater sense of cultural understanding.”
In addition to the Middle East Galleries, the museum currently has Global Guides for the Africa Galleries and the Mexico and Central America Gallery.
Since starting the role as Global Guide in 2018, Al-Obaidi has interacted with and sometimes befriended guests from around the country and world and sees his job as creating important connections.
“It’s very special. I’m representing the country here and at the same time I believe that this work I do builds bridges between people,” he says.
But building those bridges doesn’t stop at the Museum’s doors. Al-Obaidi has also been working with veterans of the Iraq War in a number of ways. Most recently, he partnered in 2021 with environmental artist Sarah Kavage and veterans of the war to build a mudhif at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. Mudhifs are structures woven out of reeds and function as traditional gathering spaces in Al-Obaidi’s region of Iraq. The mudhif he and Kavage created was used as a gathering point for Iraqi immigrant communities of Philadelphia and U.S. Iraq War veterans as a safe space for healing and sharing difficult experiences, he says. The project wrapped up in May of 2022, with the materials from the mudhif deconstructed and buried.
Now, he, other Iraqis, and U.S. war veterans are trying to find a place in Philadelphia to erect a Peace Pole. They’ve already acquired the 8-foot-tall pole, which has the words “May Peace Prevail on Earth” written on it in Arabic, Mandarin, English, Algonquin, Farsi, Hebrew, Russian, and Ukrainian.
“Installation would be simple; the veterans could do it themselves. We just need a place to put it,” he says.
They had hoped to install it in time to commemorate 20 years since the start of the war, but, despite that deadline passing, they’re still committed to finding a home for it.
Al-Obaidi says he chooses not to dwell on the challenges he’s faced over the years but rather looks forward. He is focused on helping to heal Iraq War veterans and teach visitors to the Museum and anyone he encounters about the history, past and present, of Iraq.
“It made me so happy and so proud to gather people together to reduce this gap, to build bridges of understanding,” he says. “Most Americans don't know Iraqis and this gap created by war separates us. We need to do more to reduce that gap, to understand each other and build friendship.”