An Iraqi Painter Moved to America for a Better Life and Got Robbed Anyway

It’s not often you see a look of total devastation on someone’s face, but that was the expression Bassim Al-Shaker wore when I met him at a bar in downtown Phoenix on Tuesday night. Escaping threats for his life, the Iraqi-born painter fled to Phoenix in July of last year, eventually obtaining refugee status and becoming a permanent citizen earlier this year.

But Bassim woke up Monday morning to discover the door to his downtown studio smashed. Ten paintings were stolen August 18, as well as a couch and some power tools, from Bassim’s studio on Fourth Street and McKinley. Bassim was using the studio space rent-free before the whole block is to be demolished at the end of the year.

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Formerly a barber in Baghdad, Bassim was once blindfolded, spat on, and beaten by loyalists of Iraq’s Mahdi Army militia, who left the painter so battered he spent the next two weeks in the hospital. But what had Bassim done to attract their violence? He had drawn sketches of the Venus de Milo as part of an entrance exam at Baghdad University’s College of Fine Arts.

Yeah, that’s right. Some tasteful nude sketches almost got this guy killed.