The turnout to see the Windows and Mirrors exhibit, American Friends Service Committee’s wonderful traveling exhibit of art on Afghanistan from artists around the country, has been very gratifying. Over 800 people attended the opening, which coincided with a downtown gallery crawl. Many of the people attending would not normally come to AFSC events. In all about 1,100 people attended the events or saw the exhibit during the two weeks it was being shown.
In Pittsburgh we were excited to include an installation of art which was created as part of a conversation between a US Iraq veteran, Joyce Wagner and a young Iraqi refugee high school student, Mina Al Doori. This is part of the War Dialogues project which brings together Iraqi refugees and US Veterans, who served in Iraq, to share experiences and as a way of promoting healing. The project was conceived of by Joyce Wagner after she was part of the AFSC PA Listening Project, Through Their Mother’s Eyes, with Iraqi refugees and US military wives. She had the opportunity to listen to some of the Iraqi women about their experiences during the Iraq War and recognized the healing that can come by sharing stories. Mina and Joyce spoke about the experience: “I’ve talked to other vets about the war, of course,” says Joyce. “But talking with Mina, I had to think about it in a different way, a more accountable way.” At first Mina was nervous, too. “I wasn’t sure if it was right to share my real feelings with an American. I mean, I can’t speak for all the Iraqi people. Everyone has a different opinion.” When asked what they want to convey with their art, these artists look at each other and are silent for a moment. “We just want to say what’s true for us. The war happened; it’s real. People suffered. And many women ended up taking care of their families alone.”
Our initial event was a poetry reading, Disarming Words, together with a neighboring gallery whose exhibit, Out of Rubble, was also about war. The poetry reading started at Out of Rubble and then led by the Raging Grannies we walked up the street to Windows and Mirrors where we got to hear poetry on video of well-known Iraqi poet, Abass Chachan, reciting his poetry followed by English translation by Sawsan Al Obaidi, a member of the local Iraqi refugee population. This was followed by a member of Iraq Vets Against The war reading from the Warrior Writers.
Our Women and War: Women and Peace evening gathered over 86 people – a very impressive turnout. The evening was very moving with some wonderful presentations. Sawsan Alobaidi, an Iraqi mother, talked about raising a baby in Iraq during sanctions, the Kuwait war and Iraq war. She spoke of the impact of coming to the US, “I saw the day I arrived in Pittsburgh in 2010 as my 'birthing day' after a life full of war, fear and loss, as a school girl in Baghdad seeing houses that had been turned into dust by Iranian bombs, as a college woman fleeing Kuwait with my family and as a young mother raising my children during years of bombings, crippling sanctions and corruption in Baghdad.”
Joyce Wagner, a US Iraq veteran spoke of her experiences in Iraq, being sexually harassed, the struggles of women vets and how lonely and isolated they often are, her return and not getting veterans benefits so her house was nearly foreclosed on. Our other two speakers, Iris Kaminski talked about having served in the Israeli army and living through several Israeli wars and the peace work she is part of in Pittsburgh. Our final speaker was Judith Kelly who was part of a recent delegation to Afghanistan, and could share stories of the plight of the Afghani people.
Pittsburgh Playback Theatre did an amazing job of reflecting back the stories and the feelings in a way that had many of us in tears. Two of the most poignant stories came from Sawsan’s daughters, Mina. She spoke about her wish that no child should have to go through the experiences they had and her wish for peace. The second daughter Lana talked about the disruption of coming to the States, how different everything was and not being able to speak the language. What was especially gratifying was how impactful and affirming the evening was for Sawsan and her family.
Thanks to Mary King around 80 students from City High Carter High school have attended the exhibit and spent some time exploring the murals and talking about their impressions. Each set of students has seen new things in the paintings that have given new insights into the exhibit. With the last group of over 48 students we included a dramatic reading of “Through Their Mother’s Eyes. It raised some interesting comments about the impact of the war on US soldiers and how it changes them. One young student asked to meet with AFSC staff to counsel her about going into the military. Her parents want her to go into the military to get education benefits for college.
The final weekend was a talk by Peter Lems, American Friends Service Committee Program Director for Iraq and Afghanistan. We looked at the impact of the troop withdrawal from Iraq, and our responsibilities to acknowledge the damage. We also explored how we can use those lessons learned to speed-up the removal of US troops and bases from Afghanistan.
This was followed on Sunday by a shared potluck meal between US Iraqi veterans, members of the Iraqi Pittsburgh refugee community, Iraqi refugee support people and the planning committee. It was a chance for us to talk together share stories and ways to continue the dialogue between US veterans who had served in Iraq and members of the Iraqi refugee community. It was a wonderful ending to Windows and Mirrors.