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'No one can stop me': Afghan artist Sughra Hussainy on women's rights and change through art

'No one can stop me': Afghan artist Sughra Hussainy on women's rights and change through art
Artist Sughra Hussainy, of Afghanistan, poses for a photo near Atwater's at The Shops at Kenilworth in Towson in late June. Some of her traditional Afghan artwork on display at the cafe. (Jen Rynda / BSMG)

For months after Afghan artist Sughra Hussainy settled in the U.S. in October 2016, she could not bring herself to make art.

It was art, Hussainy thought, that drew threats from the Taliban, who did not like that she was a woman with art displayed in the Smithsonian and interviews in the American press.

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It was art that forced Hussainy to abandon her home in Kabul, to make a new start in Towson with no English, no family, nothing familiar. It was art, she thought, that had made her life difficult.

But a few months later Hussainy realized she was lucky – she could speak out, she had the freedom to do what other women in her home country could not. She picked up a paintbrush, and thought to herself: “No one can stop me.”

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Hussainy, 30, creates small, intricate paintings full of color and ornate detail and overlaid with calligraphy.

She uses traditional Afghan techniques: she makes her own paper, and crushes lapis lazuli into a pigment and mixes it to make paint. She trims fur off the backs of cats to make soft paintbrushes. A single foot-long painting can take six months to complete.

But much of Hussainy’s work incorporates contemporary elements that symbolize women’s empowerment. In many of her works are painted frames that surround women, to represent the “borders” Afghan women are often expected to stay within. Some of these paintings are currently on display at Atwater’s at Kenilworth, where she used to work.

Artist Sughra Hussainy poses for a photo with one of her pieces on display at Atwater's at the Shops at Kenilworth in Towson on Friday, June 22, 2018.
Artist Sughra Hussainy poses for a photo with one of her pieces on display at Atwater's at the Shops at Kenilworth in Towson on Friday, June 22, 2018. (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

One painting features a woman’s hand, covered with henna, clasped in a defiant fist. Another, a self-portrait, has a yellow emoji painted atop part of Hussainy’s face, zipping its own mouth shut, to represent the demand that women be quiet.

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“But we should talk,” Hussainy said. “It shows we are the same. Man and woman are the same.”

Seeking asylum

After graduating high school in Kabul in 2011, Hussainy spent three years learning traditional Afghan art techniques at a school called the Turquoise Mountain Institute. Those techniques, Hussainy said, have waned in a country long torn by conflict.

When the Smithsonian Institution opened an exhibit of works from the Turquoise Mountain Institute in March 2016 and invited artists to participate in its opening, Hussainy jumped at the chance to travel to Washington.

During her short visit, Hussainy hosted traditional Afghan painting demonstrations at the Smithsonian. She said people told her that her talent was a “gift from God.”

Artist Sughra Hussainy's work on display at Atwater's at the Shops at Kenilworth in Towson on Friday, June 22, 2018.
Artist Sughra Hussainy's work on display at Atwater's at the Shops at Kenilworth in Towson on Friday, June 22, 2018. (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

She was featured on the Smithsonian website and interviewed by outlets including NPR and The Wall Street Journal. In Afghanistan, too, Hussainy’s work was growing in stature – even Afghan president Hamid Karzai bought one of her paintings, she said.

Then just 27, the world was learning Hussainy’s name – but so was the Taliban.

"They wanted to kill me, to kidnap me.” Hussainy shuddered, saying just talking about that time makes her body seize up. “It was horrible.”

The exhibit closed in October 2016, and the Smithsonian invited Hussainy to come back from Afghanistan for the closing program. That second trip, Hussainy said, might have saved her life.

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After the short visit Hussainy packed her suitcase, called an Uber and was on her way to the airport when she got a call from her older brother, still in Afghanistan: “Don’t come.” The Taliban, he told her, had found their house.

Alone in a country of strangers where she did not speak the language, Hussainy went to Asylee Women Enterprises, a Baltimore-based organization that helps women seeking asylum in the Baltimore area.

“Sughra’s very brave,” said Asylee Women Enterprises Director Tiffany Nelms. The organization helps asylum seekers like Hussainy, mostly women and children, from all over the world, many fleeing religious persecution or domestic violence, Nelms said.

“It’s a support network for people who, when they arrive, are very disoriented and alone,” Nelms said, saying the organization provides transitional housing, job readiness training, hot meals and, vitally, English lessons.

The asylum process, Nelms said, can take years – and typically asylum seekers cannot get work permits until at least six months after they arrive, if not longer. The organization, founded in Towson in 2011, fills the gap.

Asylee Women Enterprises serves about 200 people each year, primarily women and children, Nelms said, saying the donation-based organization places about 40 each year in emergency and transitional housing in the Baltimore area. The asylum seekers come from places including Rwanda, El Salvador and Afghanistan.

When Hussainy arrived at Asylee Women Enterprises, she said, they set her up in an apartment in Towson for free until she could get a work permit. She said she is most grateful for the English lessons the organization provided during that time. Today, less than two years later, Hussainy communicates seamlessly in English, speaking quickly and using synonyms for the words she has not yet learned.

The organization also connected Hussainy to a lawyer. Nelms said asylum seekers without a lawyer are denied at a rate of as high as 97 percent, but with a lawyer, that rate drops to around 40 percent.

More than a year later, Hussainy said she is still waiting to be interviewed about her asylum application.

“At first, I worry a lot,” Hussainy said. “When you don’t know your future, you don’t know anything. You cannot enjoy.” Asylee Women Enterprises’ services and programs, she said, helped her feel grounded during an uncertain time.

Building a life

In November 2017, more than a year after Hussainy arrived in the U.S., armed with a work permit, she found a job: stirring soup at Atwater’s at The Shops at Kenilworth. She worked there through the spring, until health issues forced her to quit.

Today, her art lines the walls of the cafe for patrons to buy. A print of Hussainy’s favorite painting is listed at $400.

When Hussainy sat in Atwater’s with a reporter one June afternoon, one former coworker after another greeted her with a hug. One brought Hussainy a pot of her favorite herbal tea.

“They are so kind,” Hussainy said. “I love all of them.”

Artist Sughra Hussainy, left, catches up with former coworker Julie Benish of Cockeysville while at Atwater's at the Shops at Kenilworth in Towson on Friday, June 22, 2018. Sughra Hussainy has some of her artwork on display at the cafe.
Artist Sughra Hussainy, left, catches up with former coworker Julie Benish of Cockeysville while at Atwater's at the Shops at Kenilworth in Towson on Friday, June 22, 2018. Sughra Hussainy has some of her artwork on display at the cafe. (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Kitchen manager Bronson Pompilio said he hired Hussainy because he “liked her positivity – it glows from her.”

“She is super friendly,” Pompilio said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her angry or upset with her coworkers. She’s just truly genuine.”

The work was physically demanding, and Hussainy said she quit Atwater’s because of disc problems in her neck. The pain is exacerbated by the hours spent painting painstaking detail, she said. At one point, she worried she would lose the ability to paint due to pain in her arm.

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“We both came to the agreement that she couldn’t do it anymore,” Pompilio said. “We cried together a lot about it – she really wanted a job, she wanted to make it work.”

Disability benefits are out of reach for most recent immigrants. According to the Social Security Administration’s website, in most cases, disability benefits are only available for those who have worked in the U.S. for at least 10 years.

Without income, and struggling to find another job without a college degree, Hussainy was no longer able to pay rent in Towson, and is staying temporarily with a friend in Northern Virginia.

But in the fall, Hussainy will pursue a master’s degree in community arts at the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore. The program teaches artists to use their craft for social good.

“I want to find some good way to help people with my art, to solve or remove their problem with my art,” Hussainy said.

“[Hussainy’s] work is amazingly refined and detailed and time-consuming,” Ken Krafchek, director of MICA’s community arts program. He said Hussainy, with her bravery and ability to bridge differences through her art, is a perfect fit for the program.

To make it possible for Hussainy to attend, the school awarded her a scholarship, because “MICA as a whole saw something tremendous in her,” Krafchek said.

Hussainy also continues to teach art in workshops held at the Smithsonian, and said her work could be exhibited in Towson University later this year. She hopes to move back to the Towson area while she attends MICA.

Art, for Hussainy, is therapy, joy and shared humanity. When Hussainy’s father died when she was 9, and her mother when she was 15, Hussainy said she was depressed and her head hurt all the time. But art, she said, was a balm – day by day, as she created art at the institute, she grew happier.

“The body needs food,” Hussainy often says. “But the soul needs art.”

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