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Iraqi American Artist Gives Back to the Children of Her Homeland

posted on: Nov 23, 2016

Iraqi American artist and founder of Living Light International, Nadwa Qaragholi

BY: Weam Namou/Ambassador Blogger

Nadwa Qaragholi was born and raised in Baghdad, and educated in both her native city and the American College in Beirut. Her earliest influence was her mother, a high school art teacher who instilled in her a deep appreciation for beauty and color in all of its manifestations. She went on to formally study fine arts in Baghdad under the acclaimed Iraqi artist Miran Al Saadi. After leaving Iraq in 1980, she lived in London, studied art at Santa Monica College and UCLA in Los Angeles, and finally settled in Washington, DC.

An active member of the Alexandria Art League for over twenty-five years, Qaragholi continued to refine her art under the guidance of distinguished sculptor Liberace and notable portrait painter Danny Dawson. In 2008, the Iraqi American artist founded Living Light International, a nonprofit organization whose missions include helping the vulnerable children and orphans in Iraq. As president of the organization, Qaragholi has devoted much of her life to its humanitarian missions.

“I’ve always wanted to give something back to life, always, but I didn’t know where to start,” she said. “My father was my hero, a big influence in my life. He gave us everything while he was alive, didn’t wait until he was gone.”

He had cancer and asked that she bury him in Iraq after he passed away. She couldn’t bury him there because of the kidnapping and violence, so he was buried in the United States. After his death, she went through a hard time, but then she had an idea.

“My paternal grandfather died when my father was six years old,” she said. “Although my father still had his mother and his family, he told me of the misery he felt of not having a father or anyone to completely depend on. This deep wound inside of him is why he gave us all the love that a father could give.”

So she decided to start Living Light International for the orphans of Iraq, and once it started, “God took over.”

“He guided us,” the artist said. “I go to places in Iraq that most people are afraid to go to. It’s no man’s land, but I go. My goal is to empower the street children, to build their self-esteem, to teach them tolerance and nationalism. I want to teach them how to be sympathetic to the poor and towards the world at large, not just the country of Iraq.”

A lot of the children they worked with, who once wandered in the streets, returned to school. The children felt motivated and realized that they can improve their situation. Qaragholi has also taken doctors with her from America to perform heart surgery in Iraq, rescuing almost a thousand children whose lives were in danger.

Members of the medical team

“They all call me Mamma Nadwa,” she said. “Because of those kids, the art that I was completely involved in started growing and I found other venues to explore. Through trying to help those kids, the horizons increased.”

One of Qaragholi’s recent projects “Building Bridges” links students from the Middle East and North Africa with peers within the United States via Skype to discuss the myriad challenges facing the international community. The purpose of the dialogue is to provide an opportunity for the students to brainstorm together to find solutions for these looming problems and thus, build bridges of understanding, tolerance, and respect.

Students from the Arab world skype with partners across borders.

“This project not only aims to educate, empower, and motivate Iraq’s young generation, but it is also to teach Iraqi children that they are an integral part of the world, and that they have a duty and a moral responsibility to protect their planet and all of its inhabitants.”

Qaragholi spends anywhere from six to eight months a year in these countries because she feels it’s important to be there. Through these visits, she has established a base, even though she doesn’t have employees. She only has volunteers.

“We don’t take funds from anyone, not from organizations or governments,” Qaragholi said. “I take services.”

She pays for her own travel expenses, and whoever comes with her pays their own way, as well. With all the corruption happening in Iraq, she says the reason she was able to succeed is because she works for free, so everyone trusts her and is willing to work with her.

“I feel that God took something very dear to me, my father, but He gave me something very powerful which I have been after. Some people never know why they are on this earth. I know. I really, really know.”

For more information about Living Light International, visit