Leila Ashtiani

I am a professional artist, currently living in Melbourne, Australia. Where I’m originally from, Tehran, Iran, I had trained for two-and-a-half years at university, created many works and ran my own gallery.

Life was not easy in Iran, as my family and I are of Zoroastrian faith. Suspicion and hostility towards faiths other than Islam is supported by the country’s law. Conversion from Islam to another religion is punishable by death.

For artists, our opportunities for artistic expression were very limited. Painting human forms is interdicted and not allowed by the Islamic rule.

In 2013 my whole family left Iran for Australia. The journey was very difficult. We left Indonesia for Australia on a boat which was massively overloaded, carrying 200 people. It capsized just off the Indonesian shore, and my husband and I were thrown into the sea with our infant son. I tied my baby to my stomach with a scarf and kept him above water, while my husband took a floating tyre and tried to help other people. Eighty people died in the accident – we were very lucky.

As soon as I was released into the Australian community (community detention), I volunteered to teach art class in the detention centre. From there I met with other refugees and artists, and together we formed MAFA – Melbourne Artists for Asylum Seekers. I’m very proud as an artist to exhibit my paintings alongside others, telling the journey of our life.