A Broken House

Mohamad Hafez received a one-way ticket to the United States. Missing his homeland, he decided to create a stand-in. A story of love, loss and creating pathways home.

AIRED: September 06, 2021 | 0:20:02



-This is where I source all my found objects --

my dried plants, my miniature furniture,

Christmas ornaments,

shells, paints, nails, stones.

This knob here is a radio switch,

but what I see in it is an exploded engine.

This is my stash of miniature toys.

Sometimes the furniture I find is already broken,

and the shop owner says, "Well, I can't sell you that.

It's broken. What are you going to do with it?"

[ Laughs ]

This is from my previous marriage

wedding cake.

That's what's left of the marriage.

[ Buttons clicking ]



Before the Syrian war,

my art was very therapeutic,

was very cathartic.


I was just making, making, making.

I wanted to build the Damascus of my memories.


A lot of generations came here.

A lot of paint happened on these walls.


So, that's exactly what I'm going to do --

paint, scrape, paint, scrape.


Before you know it,

the architecture was telling the story

of the human that lived within.


And that would bring me home.


-Bye. Take care.

[ Video call ends ]


-I always wanted to come to the United States

to study architecture here.


After 9/11 happened,

there was a travel ban in place

that wasn't called a travel ban.

My visa was stamped as single-entry only.

And I realized that I was stuck here.

I was extremely homesick.

I was giving up being with my parents,

being with my older brother, my sisters.


I missed my sister's wedding and the birth of her children.

I was very close to my grandmother,

and I couldn't go to her funeral.

It felt horrible.

I would say to my parents,

"Okay, this is it. I'm coming home."

They'd say, "No, don't do this. Don't jeopardize your career."


It was one of those nights.

It might have been Thanksgiving break.

Nothing's open. Where is everybody?

They're home.


They're with their families.

And I was in this open architecture studio space.

I was the only person in there.

I remember I was so frustrated.

And I had a photograph of an old Damascene facade

that was on a candy wrapper.

And I think a little bulb turned on in my head.

And it told me, "Well, stop whining.

If you can't get home, why don't you make home?"


And I would collect all the wood scraps

that my peers would throw away on the floor,

the plastics, the styrene.


That's when it really kind of clicked,

like, "Okay.

This is me.

This is where I'm from."

[ Indistinct shouting ]

It's hard to pin down when exactly the war started.

My parents hesitated to leave home.

It's not until the clashes broke off 100 meters away

and shook our whole house,

they realized, "Okay, the conflict is now on our doorstep,

and we need to leave."

They came and lived in my small apartment.


I was a very young designer

pitching $200-, $300-, $400-million buildings.


I had to keep a straight face at work and still perform.


But I was very troubled.

Extremely troubled.


I had a monitor literally on news channels

10 hours a day.

I'm working, and I'm seeing the Arab world blow up.


I lost my appetite.

I didn't do any art for maybe two years straight.


And I've internalized it, internalized it.

And I'm boiling.


I took to my models like an explosion.


If something did not look right,

I took a hammer to it, and I broke it,

and I snapped it, and I would throw ash at it and burn it.


People were so sick of seeing blood and bodies

as a way to build empathy.

And I get that. I was sick, too.

I mean, how many dead bodies can we see?

You just go like, "Oh, my gosh,

not another Syrian kid washing off the shores."

Swipe away to the next story.


There was this fire inside me

to start humanizing refugees

and to tell their stories.

[ Light bulb shatters ]


[ Chuckles ]

I was interviewing a refugee one time,

and the man started crying.

And he said, "I'm very grateful for their help,

but the night we arrived here, the lady welcoming us

was teaching me how to turn a light switch on.

Could you please translate to her

that I had a very beautiful house in Syria

with a lot of appliances and a lot of things in it,

and I really know how to switch a light on?"


We come from established lives.

We had a life.

You can't explain millions of people with one stamp,

"Refugee," full stop.


Hiraeth is a Welsh word

without a direct translation into English.

It describes a state of extreme homesickness

to a homeland that is no longer existent

or has never, ever existed.


I have certainly fallen in love

with the idea of Damascus and Syria.


I only had a moment there.


When I opened my eyes, I was swept away.


The Syrian War resulted

in a lot of marriages failing.

[ Speaking Arabic ]

My mom moved back to Damascus

because she became extremely homesick.

She was saying in Arabic [speaks Arabic]

"Whatever happens to everybody will happen to me, as well."

[ Speaking Arabic ]

I can't go to Syria

because I will get drafted to the military.

Going and seeing my mom in Lebanon

is the closest I can be to home.

[ Water pouring ]

-My nice lemon, growing and growing.

I love my lemon.


-The news was not showing

what we were losing culturally.

Undoubtedly, the most expensive price being paid in conflicts

is the human life.

No question.

But also, there is something to weep over

when you see a thousand-year-old minaret

being bombed out of existence.

[ Muezzin singing in distance ]


You wipe a nation's history,

you wipe their architecture...


...two generations later,

it's as though they've never existed.


What does a civilization leave behind

when they live there for thousands of years?


How many layers do they leave, of paint and stories?



I was painting a picture

so that people can fully understand

the magnitude of destruction.


[ Children laugh in distance ]



For a split-second,

you are transported to a different place.


-[ Smooches ]

-[ Laughs tearfully ]


Okay, okay. [ Speaks Arabic ]



-[ Smooches ]


Wars tend to change people.

They change souls.


The memories that I have

could very well

not exist today.


The grace and warmth...


...could very well have vanished.






We don't have a full family portrait

that is newer than 1999.

The four siblings of us and the two parents

have not been under a single roof

in 14, 15 years.

I've stopped counting.

And I miss it. I miss home.

I miss home.


[ Thunder rumbling ]







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