This report is supported by the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives
October 22, 2023
Mahnaz’s favorite style is realism, especially when it is colour portraits in pencil. For the past day or two, the 22 year old has been diligently working on the colour portrait of a woman, whose face is overlaid with glass fragments. She must pay attention to the way the subject’s features warp because of the shards as well as the harsh shadows cast by the cracks in the glass. It will take her at least two more days before she has fully rendered the portrait.
The shards of glass, the shadows and warped feature are something she can relate to well. She frequents a makeshift art academy in Rawalpindi, where she finds the time as well as the peace she needs to create her artwork. Art has a special place in her art as it diverts her mind from wallowing in the trauma of her past.
Mahnaz is an Afghan refugee, and has been living in Pakistan since 2014. Her family left their country after the Taliban abducted her father and brother from their home in Logar province. Both men were serving in Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry, and remain missing to this day.
The incident had a profound impact on Mahnaz’s mental well-being. A decade has passed by since she lost part of her family, and even today she struggles to live a normal life.
But her story is not an outlier – a significant number of Afghan refugees, especially young women and girls, have been psychologically scarred due to the hardships they have experienced before and after their forced migration.
Recognizing this issue, Muhammad Ibrahim, an Afghan artist who fled Kabul soon after the Taliban assumed control of the country in August 2021, established an art school for Afghan youth, both girls and boys to help them recover from their traumatic past.
“Like Mahnaz, many young Afghan girls arrived in Pakistan under dire circumstances. Their families suffered greatly at the hands of the Taliban. The inhumane treatment they endured is not an easy thing to forget,”
he tells Voicepk.net.
He mentions that many Afghan families migrated to Pakistan with the dream of starting a new life, with access to education as well as a worry-free environment.
In reality, many refugees, especially those who crossed the border in a hurry without valid visas in 2021, have very limited access to education and employment opportunities. Rudely awakened and with their hopes of a good future in Pakistan, many young Afghans are so distraught that some of them are choosing to even end their lives themselves.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an estimated 3.7 million Afghans who fled their country for economic as well as political reasons are residing in Pakistan. Of these, only 1.4 million are formally registered.
Ibrahim decided to open a makeshift art academy, giving evening lessons in art and music at a private school. He emphasizes that painting and music require creativity, and can prevent one’s mind from drowning in negative thoughts.
Over 40 students, half of them female, attend the school, where they dedicate three to four hours every day to sketching and painting.
Mahnaz says she finds solace in painting, and that this world of colors is a sanctuary for her.
“I used to undergo so much stress, that I became very unwell. But ever since I started painting, I feel much more relaxed. Painting allows me to express my emotions a lot better,”
Like her, Aafia, 15, arrived from Afghanistan 10 years ago and found it incredibly challenging to adjust to her new environment. She, too, joined Ibrahim’s art school some time ago, and now art classes have become an amazing stress reliever.
“Sketching and then transforming them into pictures provides me immense relief and peace of mind. Even at home, whenever I feel sad, I start drawing as my paintings speak to me,” she says.
When happiness wont last long
This peace of mind however is now being threatened with Pakistan moving swiftly and aggressively to forcibly repatriate Afghan refugees and migrants. In early October, the caretaker Government of Pakistan set a deadline for November 1 for all illegal migrants (many of whom are Afghan) to either leave the country voluntarily or be forcibly expelled.
This announcement, Ibrahim reveals, has left his students anxious, as they have no desire to return to Afghanistan where they will be given no space for free thinking and for the arts.
“I am nervous. Going back to Afghanistan means I would have to abandon my passion for painting as there is no place for women and the arts under the Taliban’s rule. I can’t imagine life without my brushes now,” says Mahnaz.
Aafia too is distressed about the looming fear of possibly being deported. She posits that it would be incredibly challenging to live in a society where painting is considered a taboo.
“Painting brings me profound peace. If anyone tries to take my brush and pencil away, I will never allow it. I cannot let anyone take away my peace of mind,” she declares.
Ibrahim laments that, unlike other countries, Afghanistan does not value art and artists, anymore.
“The Afghan government (of today) has one mindset, and us Afghans have a different mindset,” he says.