When curators installing a London exhibition about migrants hung a portrait of a Kurdish grandfather they found a chilling message written on the back of the drawing. It revealed that the subject of the picture had been shot dead in Iraq three years after he was denied asylum in the UK.
The inscription, written by the Kurdish artist Behjat Omer Abdulla, read: “Hajy Khalil was killed by a gunman on 12 February 2013 in Baghdad on his way home. He was refused for his asylum application in the UK. He went to Sweden and was deported from Sweden to Iraq.”
Abdulla, who currently lives in Sweden, said that the message was “a kind of signature”, and he was glad the curators of the Southbank exhibition “Adopting Britain: 70 Years of Migration”, had found it. Mr Khalil’s story was “tragic” he said, and the portrait was born of an earlier tragedy.
Just days after he was deported to Iraq in 2010, Mr Khalil’s three grandchildren were killed by a car bomb. “I had met him in Stoke and he was a beautiful person, a really nice guy,” Abdulla said. “When I heard about his grandchildren I really wanted to do something, to do his portrait. I sent it to him and he was really happy with it.”
Three years later, Mr Khalil was shot in the head by a gunman on a motorbike. Both the identity of the killer and the motive for the crime remain unknown. “When I heard about his death I was completely shocked,” Abdulla said.
“At the same time it shows how sometimes the immigration office cannot find out the true story of people’s lives. I was really sad about it.” Abdulla does not blame immigration officials for Mr Khalil’s death, however, adding that it is “very difficult to make a decision about someone’s life” after just a few hours in an interview room.
“It’s not their [the officials’] fault; it’s something to do with the system. There needs to be a more suitable law.” The Southbank exhibition was set up to tell the stories of the different communities who have settled in Britain whether for work or love, and those who have sought refuge from war or persecution.
Bea Colley, who organised the show, said: “We want to celebrate migrants’ contribution to the artistic and cultural scene.” The exhibition is part of the Southbank’s Changing Britain festival.
Other displays include items brought by migrants from their home countries, a digital timeline of the cultural contribution migrants have made to the UK, and the chance to fill out some of the questions from the Life in the UK citizenship application test.
It also looks at the lives of those held in detention centres or stuck in the system after applying to remain in the UK.
Abdulla spent 12 years going through the refugee process after fleeing Kurdistan in 1997 at the age of 21 and seeking asylum in the UK. The portrait of Mr Khalil is one of three large works in pencil he created as part of a series of 12 works called “In Limbo”.
He said: “The people I chose [to draw] were invisible and I wanted to stretch their images to monumental sizes and ask: ‘Who are these people?’ “In some cases, like Hajy, it’s important to know your neighbour can be going through this sort of process.”
By Nick Clark