New Bedford library exhibit showcases Afghan refugee women’s art as they build a future

February 15, 2023 : The Standard-Times, Kathryn Gallerani

When the Taliban’s ban on girls’ education was implemented, Kubra Nizami taught girls at home how to read, write and work on handicrafts including knitting and sewing.

A new Afghan arts exhibit showcasing traditional and modern handicrafts from six local women, including the former high school teacher and school principal from Kabul, offers insight into their skills and culture through their handiwork as they look to the future.

The exhibit, “Dil ba Dil Rah Dhara (From One Heart to Another): The Afghan Women’s Art Project,” will be on display at the New Bedford Free Public Library at 613 Pleasant St. through March 23.

When the exhibit closes, their embroidery, jewelry, clothing and other work will be auctioned off online, and the women will receive the proceeds from the auction. It’s a step toward financial security, with creating an additional source of income for their families one of their goals.

The Afghan Women’s Art Project was created following the arrival of refugee families in New Bedford from Afghanistan in November 2021.

The Afghan arts exhibit featuring the work of six Afghan women will be on display in the New Bedford Free Public Library through March 23.

With her knowledge of the English language, Dabeeri Emad wanted to help other families from Afghanistan when she arrived in New Bedford, and offered to help overcome some of their challenges in communicating.

Nizami said she’s grateful to be part of the Afghan Women’s Art Project, through Emad as her translator, and said it feels good to be part of the new Afghan arts exhibit because of the opportunity it offered her to make new friends and stay busy while she continues to adjust to her new life.

Nizami said she felt welcomed by the community when she first arrived and is grateful for the help and encouragement she has received and continues to receive while facing feelings of anxiety. She said she looks forward to working on other projects in the future.

“It’s very hard when you leave your country and come to new people, a new society,” she said. “I’m very thankful because I’m thinking if I would not be part of this grant, I would get depression. All this time that I was busy with this work, it was a very good time for me.”

Emad has coordinated the exhibit with the women for the past year as they work to meet their goals, whether it's applying their culinary skills in business or launching a clothing design business as a source of income while studying for medical exams.

“Many of our ladies have good skills that can be used, and they can make some money for that or they can start some small businesses,” Emad said.

When New Bedford officials knew when the city was going to start receiving Afghan refugees, the SouthCoast Afghan Welcome Network, a coalition of government offices, nonprofits and volunteers, was formed at Mayor Jon Mitchell’s request led by Director of Special Projects and Programs Janet Barbosa.

Mali Lim, program coordinator for the city’s Department of Community Services, said realizing that some of the women would benefit from financial literacy classes, a 13-week financial literacy class was held at the YWCA.

Lim said women learned about banking basics such as how to open their own business checking accounts if they want to gain some level of financial independence. They also learned about credit and took computer classes. Some of the women were well educated. Others had never worked outside the home.

“We were looking for ways that women could learn how to use their skills, and the whole idea was the Afghan Women’s Project would help them sell their handicrafts with the idea that they could turn around and invest it as seed money for whatever business they wanted to start,” Lim said.

The exhibit is funded by MassDevelopment/TDI and the Barr Foundation with the Art is Everywhere Grant, facilitated by New Bedford Creative at the New Bedford Economic Development Center and the Community Economic Development Center.

Library Director Olivia Melo offered Lim use of the third floor of the library with its display cases for exhibiting the handicrafts when she applied for the Art is Everywhere grant, and offered to curate the exhibit to honor and showcase their traditions and highlight some of the detailed work the women were creating.

As the librarian, Melo has helped the families get their library cards and become familiar with the library’s offerings, but she has also been forming friendships with the women and their families.

“They're just amazing friends, and I’m learning so much about them and their culture,” she said.