Painting by Sudaba. Credit: Courtesy of Erika Berg

In the weeks leading up to Aug. 15, as tension mounted before the deadline for the U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan and images poured into social media streams and broadcast channels worldwide, Sudaba and her 4-year-old son’s eyes were fixed on a TV screen showing a series of films they frequently watch—the Avengers movies. The Marvel universe felt like the safest place for her child, away from the headlines and into a fantasy judgment day where energy blasts and empathy could save the world. 

Whenever something went wrong in Afghanistan, Sudaba says, her goal was to distract her son from the news. He was too young to digest the situation and she didn’t want it to affect him. It wasn’t tough to keep her son busy with the Avengers. But when the crisis abroad accelerated, Sudaba couldn’t shield him from the reactions of family members, with whom she had migrated from a rural province in western Afghanistan to Northern Virginia two years earlier.  

“He’s like, ‘I’m the Spider-Man, and you’re the Iron Man, and the evil guy is the Taliban,’” Sudaba recalls. “So I’m like, ‘Oh my God, he’s listening.’ ”

The Taliban was infiltrating major urban areas in Afghanistan then. In February 2020, the Trump administration promised to withdraw all U.S. troops by May of this year; in return, the Taliban promised a cease-fire and to share power. Although the Biden administration pushed that date back to Aug. 31, the Taliban had been claiming territory for 18 months. The Trump deal had emboldened them: With an end date in sight for U.S. aid to Afghan security forces, the Taliban had hustled to expand their reach in rural provinces before graduating to more heavily guarded cities. 

This came at a time when many Afghan soldiers and police in rural areas, far from the Kabul-based rulers, had already gone months without pay, food, or proper training. Some were replacements during a chronic turnover of Afghan fighters and not adequately prepared for battle. Many were demoralized by both the U.S.’s imminent departure and Afghan government corruption. Seeing a choice between survival and fighting in a war set to end soon, they had abandoned their posts or surrendered to the Taliban, which promised amnesty to troops and their families.  

Although the Western media focuses disproportionately on repression of women’s rights, men have also faced heightened consequences since the Taliban takeover, according to Tazreena Sajjad, Ph.D., senior professorial lecturer in the Global Governance, Politics, and Security program at American University. “Men have also endured floggings and beheadings, they have been publicly humiliated, they have been beaten,” she says. Sajjad cites the beard-growing rule, regulations for how men can express their gender identity or advocate for women or LGBTQ rights, and retaliation against men who have served with Afghan forces or government as reasons that men can be targets of violence, assassination, and socioeconomic violence.

“There’s a lot of Orientalist—and some would persuasively argue, racist and certainly patronizing—attitudes toward women and men from the Global South,” says Sajjad, who has been a consultant for the Afghanistan program at Global Rights based in the country. Western nations have historically seen themselves as protectors and saviors for Brown women from Brown men, she notes. Other scholars point to the potential liberation of women from the Global South as one factor used to justify both the U.S. and Soviet invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and 1979, respectively.

The takeover of Kabul on Aug. 15 was the headline event. Sudaba had just lulled her infant to sleep when she saw the images of the Taliban posing for photos in the Arg, the presidential palace in Afghanistan, and the people swarming the tarmac at Kabul Airport on social media. When her son found his mother sobbing, her face illuminated by images of their homeland, he knew what to do. 

“Afghanistan was handed over to the Taliban basically, and … I couldn’t hold my tears and I started crying,” she says. “He came and said, ‘Mommy, it’s Spider-Man. I can go and catch the Taliban. Everything will be fine.’” His childlike hope and reassurance did help, though not in the way he intended.

“He looks at things like this, like war, like, Yeah, there will be something like a good side that would come and cover all these bad things that have been going on,” says Sudaba. “[Children] have this hope alive in them, and sometimes I wish it was that easy.”

One week later, she thought of her son’s worldview during a bout of painter’s block. Her younger sister, Mahsa, had pushed the family to participate in a visual storytelling workshop; they needed to do something other than grieve. The workshops were the brainchild of Erika Berg, who has worked with refugees in and outside the D.C. area for two decades. Her workshops are designed to give refugees, who are forced into their situation and migration, the agency to tell the story of their relationship to the crisis back home. Paintings that emerge from workshops are also meant to complicate the Western narrative around refugees and migrants, particularly Black and Brown bodies, which Sajjad sees as a dangerous road that needs to change: “Without that, we don’t understand the full experience of what displacement is like,” Sajjad says. 

Berg had been holding workshops with other refugee communities, and had contacted a local resettlement agency last year to inquire about what mental health services were available for Afghan refugees. Someone at the agency had connected Berg to a young woman who happened to be from Afghanistan and was in medical school: Mahsa. 

When the Afghan crisis unfolded in August, Berg reconnected with Mahsa, who consulted with Berg on the workshop prompts and translated the questions and instructions for her father, who didn’t understand English. Then she recruited participants who would be willing to face their feelings. Berg had reserved a room at the City of Fairfax Regional Library where Sudaba, Mahsa, their mother Hassina, their father, and friends were given art supplies and got to work. 

Sudaba’s paper soon spread with familiar masses of green and sea blue, plus pigments of bright blue and red. She painted the shape people see when they google-image a map of Afghanistan, she says, and inserted Spider-Man, suspended in a blue space, catching the bearded, turbaned Taliban with his web and “dragging down the darkness.” She also painted mud brown, representing all the news that was consuming her family, and her son playing with a Spider-Man toy in another blue safe space. “Still, in this chaos, he has this calm and hopeful mind,” she says.   

The empty spaces in the painting are also revealing: She’d put down watercolor blue to represent Facebook and other social media, she says, but it faded away. Her fear of surveillance via social media remained. Her friends, fearing for their lives, had already changed their names on social media, and she was communicating with them mostly through calls and voice memos.

The Taliban is using social media platforms in violation of Facebook and YouTube’s explicit bans on the group and the social media giants’ policies against hateful conduct and violent organizations. The day of the takeover, a Taliban leader told Al Jazeera that it had sent WhatsApp messages to Kabul residents en masse declaring, “We are in charge of security for Kabul.” 

“It breaks me every time,” she says, describing the plight of her cousin in Afghanistan, who had one semester of medical school left when the Taliban took over and restricted educational opportunities for girls and women. After vowing it would rule differently this time, the group swiftly curbed freedoms for both genders but girls and women in particular. Before Afghan schools reopened in mid-September, the Taliban announced that women could study at universities, just not alongside men, and would adhere to a new dress code. But as universities don’t have the resources for separate classes, many criticized the rule as performative. Meanwhile, the Taliban banned girls between 13 and 18 from secondary school education, keeping further generations from academic and career possibilities. The Taliban also told professional women to stay home, citing safety concerns. It is unclear whether women will be able to return to work and universities.

The last time the Taliban curtailed women’s rights, Hassina witnessed and helped mobilize resistance such as underground schools for girls who couldn’t attend, women educators who couldn’t teach, and male teachers who were banned for being too liberal for the Taliban curriculum. This time, she says, Afghan women are disillusioned about having earned advanced degrees only to now be unable to practice in their fields. 

“After [20] years, they are at home with their master’s, with their bachelor’s, and now again this situation is repeating for their children,” Hassina says.    

During the second visual storytelling workshop she attended, this time co-hosted by Berg and another Afghan woman on Sept. 12, Hassina thought of 3s. Her vision on paper featured three cages lined up vertically inside the 2D sphere on her page. The cages face a figure shaped like the moon with the glow of the sun and “the figure of a woman, because women are not involved in war,” which Hassina refers to as simply “the light.” The bottom two cages are occupied by children of the adults outside the enclosures shoving the cages, which won’t open.

One adult depicted in the drawing is her sister-in-law, a former high school teacher, pushing against the cage that holds her three daughters and son: “She says that just I have to save the life of my children,” Hassima explains, “and they should go out—they are in cages and there is another side of the world [where] some people are trying to welcome them and trying to save their life.” 

Painting by Hassina. Courtesy of Erika Berg.

The other parent is her brother-in-law, a physician in Afghanistan. He’s drawn pushing so hard that the cage his daughters inhabit is soaked with blood from his hand. Like many other Afghans outside Kabul and in rural provinces with heavily guarded checkpoints, he wasn’t able to get past Taliban forces to the airport and evacuate by the Aug. 15 deadline or flee on foot to Iran or Pakistan. During a recent conversation, she says he told her, “I will bear the situation—I don’t care if I be killed by someone, but I am concerned about my daughters’ future. And I am trying my best to get them out of the country.” 

The image of her brother-in-law pushing his three daughters’ cage open to the point of pain and bloodshed stayed with her while painting: “He’s trying to push them to go but the cage door is closed and they are inside … They are struggling,” Hassina says. “Because he is a man, he is not in a cage, [but] the daughters are in a cage.”  

In Hassina’s painting, the door to the top cage is ajar, and three girls or young women take flight in a flurry of violet and pink, their dark hair waving behind them toward the light. “They are the students that … got access to the light because they live in the capital of Afghanistan,” she explains. “They could get access to the airport, they could get access to airplane—even with so much difficulties … But what happened about the provinces that they don’t have any access?”

Hassina was one of the young women who ultimately fled the cage after the last period of Taliban rule in the 1990s. Since then, she has been an advocate and activist in her community. In the D.C. area, where she moved two years ago, she recently helped coordinate protests in support for Afghans facing the crisis abroad.

Hassina’s other daughter, Mahsa, helped organize a quieter type of resistance when she partnered with Berg to run the first workshop after the Taliban takeover. “I’m doing these visual storytelling workshops with especially those who are kind of serving as a bridge within the family, trying to help their parents or their grandparents to dip their toe in the shallow end of American society and feel safe,” says Berg.

During the second storytelling workshop, Mahsa at last felt free to put her emotions to paint, as she wasn’t co-hosting the event and had had time to process the crisis. She wanted to show the two worlds in Afghanistan, she said: the one before and the one after Aug. 15. “In one day, everything turned upside down,” she says, showing the sharply divided world in the two halves of her painting. For her, the easiest way to explain this shift is also the most personal: through her cousin from med school. 

“I kind of find myself in her and her in myself because we’re on the same path,” she says. Mahsa and her cousin grew up together dreaming of the day when they would practice medicine. She describes her cousin, one year older, as smarter and more hardworking than her. They both received top marks in school and went on to med school. Even after Mahsa and her immediate family got a special visa to the U.S., their similarities remained: Mahsa specialized in neurology or neurosurgery; her cousin in heart surgery. 

In Mahsa’s painting of Aug. 14 Afghanistan, there is lush grass and a tree—“like the trees and grass we have in Afghanistan … so natural, so organic,” she says—under a clear sky. In her painting, thought bubbles illustrate a woman’s dreams of becoming a doctor and bringing the dream of the little boy in a wheelchair beside her to life; he wants to be able to walk and become a kite runner, Mahsa says, explaining the Afghan practice of running after drifting kites. 

Painting by Mahsa. Courtesy of Erika Berg.

On the other side of Mahsa’s painting, the Taliban beats her cousin, and her dream, down. The girl, who is in chains, faces up and continues to struggle for that dream, but the dream bleeds and the tree burns. 

“And you know, things are connected to each other,” Mahsa says. “So a dream is connected to another dream, a country is connected to another country. And when something happens in one side of the world, in a country, it doesn’t matter how little or how big it is, it impacts all the world. These people that are in Afghanistan, they are not different than any other people.”

When asked, Mahsa, Sudaba, and Hassina said the visual storytelling benefits offered temporary relief—the sessions didn’t suddenly melt away their stress or heal their trauma. But they were able to share the experience with family and friends, including Mahsa and Sudaba’s more reticent father and other friends, some of whom tend to keep their feelings bottled up. They were able to name some of their worries, fears, and hopes in pictures. They also had a vehicle to take action locally when they felt helpless. 

“Right now [there is] a very, very severe mental health crisis,” Mahsa says. “Sometimes … I think, you know, what can I do about it? But here’s something [where] I’m like, ‘OK, the recent refugees [who] came, I can’t imagine the mental crisis they are [experiencing] right now. So what are the ways that I can help them?”

Before the workshop, Mahsa worried that asking attendees to paint their feelings might be triggering for them, but looking around at participants during and after the painting session told her it was worth it: “I realized that although it was a very emotional process, it brought us together and it was a safe space,” she says.  

Mahsa asks that anyone able and willing to help her cousin seek refuge connect with her through City Paper.

Note: This story has been updated to clarify that Professor Tazreena Sajjad worked for an organization called Global Rights.

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