Artists, Immigrant And Refugee Communities Complete Public Artworks

Sep 17, 2019

Mastoorah Fazly and her husband, Nooruloq, left Afghanistan for the U.S. in 2016. Like many Afghani refugees, they held Special Immigrant Visas because Noorulhoq had worked for the U.S. State Department, putting them in danger at home.

In Pittsburgh, Mastoorah joined other Afghani women who had immigrated under similar circumstances, only to find themselves somewhat isolated and with limited language skills in a strange new land. Resources to help them acclimate included the nonprofit Northern Area Multi Service Center, where they took sewing classes. And that was how, in early 2017, they met Molly Rice, a Pittsburgh-based theater artist and one of four artists the city’s Office of Public Art chose for its project called Artists Residencies With Immigrant and Refugee Communities.

Rice was fascinated by the Afghani refugees’ circumstances: The women’s husbands, though well-educated and fluent in English, were now doing jobs like Uber driver. “I thought it was probably closest to what it would be like to be a refugee from America, if we ever encounter that,” said Rice.

The residencies were for two years each, the first year to let the artist and her community learn about each other and engage the community, the second to develop a collaborative project. While year two recently came to an end, aspects of the projects live on, not least in the case of Rice, her group Real/Time Interventions and the five Afghani women she was matched with: Their series of storytelling dinners called "Khūrākī" was the springboard for starting a catering business that brings Afghani food to Pittsburgh.

One of the women’s goals was to broaden Americans’ knowledge of their home country. “[A]ll the people, they know Afghanistan, it’s only war in Afghanistan, there is nothing else,” says Fazly, 27, whose first language is Dari. “They heard like bad things of Afghanistan. But they didn’t heard about the good things that Afghanistan have, our good culture, our good food.”

“Khūrākī” means “eat” or “meal” in Dari. Four public events took place this year starting in March, at venues including New Sun Rising, in Millvale; the Union Project, in Highland Park, the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, in Oakland; and City of Asylum’s Alphabet City, on the North Side.

The scripts were developed by Rice and the women, who then handed off the storytelling to five local actresses the women cast as themselves. One script was written for the Afghani new year celebration, the other for Ramadan, with thematically appropriate food choices. Each dinner drew about 60 patrons, said Fazly.

“It was fun and we are so happy because it was first time someone wrote our stories and tell them to the people,” she said. “It was wonderful.”

Favorite foods of patrons included ay-kanoum, a pastry filled with meat and vegetables and shaped like a rose, Fazly said.

Rice’s residency continued even after the Northern Area Multi Service Center, which works with multiple immigrant and refugee communities, closed. The women helped cater the Office of Public Art’s Sept. 5 event celebrating completion of the residencies. The five Afghani women’s catering outfit, Zafaron Afghan Cuisine, is open for business, Fazly said.

The other residency teams included artist Christine Bethea and the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh, which created a Youth Arts Teams for Bhutanese teens, with a focus on video production.

Lindsey Scherloum worked with the United Somali Bantu of Greater Pittsburgh to build a website and publish a book that would both give Somali Bantu information about resources and educate the larger community about Somali Bantu in Pittsburgh. And Mary Tremonte and clients at Literacy Pittsburgh developed art-based activities to improve teaching of English as a second language.

The artist residencies are organized by the Office of Public Art, Welcoming Pittsburgh, and the Department of City Planning. Funders included the National Endowment for the Arts, The Buhl Foundation, The Fine Foundation, Mary Hillman Jennings Foundation, The Opportunity Fund, PA Partners in the Arts, and The Pittsburgh Foundation.