GIG HARBOR, Wash. –While working as an international consultant on U.S. Department of State-funded economic development projects in 2009, Timothy Ham met an Afghan artist named Abdul.
More recently, Ham has been the lead organizer in trying to help Abdul leave Afghanistan with his family and come to Tacoma to teach art to high school students.
“I can no longer have a painting exhibition, nor teach painting to girls and women,” Abdul said. “My paintings are not sold in Afghanistan, and the Taliban do not value my art. I wish to be able to have painting galleries in America show my art and express my feelings easily and teach American people to paint. I love painting and teaching and I hope the good people of America will help me achieve my dreams,” Abdul told the Gateway via WhatsApp from Afghanistan.
Abdul asked that the Gateway only publish his first name, out of concern for his safety and the safety of his family.
Initial meeting in 2009
Ham worked as the Western Regional Manager on the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Afghanistan Small & Medium Enterprise Development project in Afghanistan for a year during 2008-2009.
Ham found himself attending an award ceremony at an art school, where he met Abdul. Abdul was an instructor and co-owner of an art school with his father.
“I was impressed with the rapport Abdul established with his young students and his artistic talents. Later I purchased two paintings from the 21-year-old artist and art instructor,” Ham told the Gateway.
While at the exhibition Abdul also met U.S. Department of State representative Brad Hanson, who also purchased two paintings from Abdul.
Abdul was born into painting and the love of art was rooted in his family. His father had worked many years as an artist and art instructor, inspiring Abdul to follow his father’s footsteps.
“I started painting professionally from the age of 15. I went to school half the day and painted the other half. I spent the preliminary stages of pencil drawing professionally and then I started painting oil on canvas in the styles of realism and impressionism,” Abdul said.
Fast forward to 2021
Upon taking control of the Afghan government again in August 2021, the Taliban quickly issued edicts banning music and “art of living things.”
This forced Abdul to close his art gallery, art school, stop selling his art and stop exhibiting his art.
“I hid most of the paintings of people because the Taliban considers face paintings forbidden and against their view of Islamic law,” Abdul said.
Abdul had been supportive of the Afghan and NATO effort to help Afghanistan and taught art to girls and women. Within a few weeks after the Taliban regained control of the government, they were in Abdul’s neighborhood seeking him. They had threatened him several years before.
Abdul eventually took his wife and three young children and went into hiding, staying with friends. They have been in hiding in Afghanistan since October 2021.
Abdul kept Hanson’s email address from 2009. Abdul contacted Hanson as the Taliban were starting to take over the country again to reach out for financial support and help in leaving.
Hanson passed on the email to Ham.
Ham was determined to help find a way to bring Abdul to the United States.
“Abdul has a unique gift as an artist with the ability to paint not only what he sees, but also what he feels. Each painting has a story. I am grateful for the two years I spent in Afghanistan and saddened by the pain Afghans have had to endure from decades of war and conflict. I did not know exactly how I would help Abdul and his family but at least I could try,” Ham told the Gateway.
Carl Highland, a friend of Ham, created a GoFundMe page online to raise funds for Abdul and his family for living expenses, visa costs and travel.
Abdul also sold paintings.
“I created a painting of the water in Gig Harbor with beautiful Mount Rainier in the background,” Abdul said. “The huge and beautiful mountains, tall and green trees, the calm waters of Puget Sound and the houses among the trees really thrilled me and I depicted all this beauty with paint and brush.”
That painting was purchased by a Gig Harbor couple, Mike and Pat Harle, who are Ham’s in-laws. Funds from painting sales go toward a salary for Abdul once he lands in the United States.
“I am very happy that I am in contact with the good people of America,” Abdul said.
Ham was referred to the law firm of Sethi & Mazaheri LLC in New York and New Jersey. Sanjay Sethi recommended they apply for an O-1 visa for an artist of “extraordinary ability.” That requires recognition from artists, art critics and art professors to support the application with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Ham said they were able to obtain testimonies from Professor David Brody, a long-time University of Washington art professor; Gary Faigin, artist, art critic and co-founder of the Gage Academy of Art in Seattle; Professor Jon Monti of Pratt Institute; and Professor Donna Moran, former Chair of the Fine Arts Department at Pratt Institute.
The visa application also required a signed employment agreement. That came from Elements of Education last month. Abdul will be able to work for Elements of Education, assisting in art classes in Tacoma.
Elements of Education is a nonprofit founded over 20 years ago in Tacoma. The organization created the School of the Arts, the Science and Math Institute, and the School of Industrial Design, Engineering and Art.
The O-1 visa application for Abdul was submitted in late June.
Sethi informed Ham and Abdul July 23 that it was approved.
Abdul and his family now must travel to a U.S. embassy for a final consulate interview and recording of biometrics, which may take a few weeks to schedule.
“For ease of travel logistics and obtaining travel visas, the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan is where Abdul will go for his interview. There is a Pakistan consulate in Abdul’s city where he has requested and obtained travel visas for the family,” Ham told the Gateway.
The family would travel to Islamabad, attend an interview, and based upon the results of the interview then travel to the U.S.
Their arrival in the U.S. depends on being able to obtain the travel visa to Pakistan, an interview with the consular office and the decision following the interview. Normally the interview would be to confirm photos of all family members, documents of marriage and birth, and to issue their U.S. travel documents, among other things.
When funds are raised for his salary, he would then be able to start work and be paid for his new position as a teacher’s assistant at SAMI, SOTA and IDEA.
Ham and others are organizing fundraising activities, art exhibits, travel arrangements and other logistics to get the family out of Afghanistan and to America.
Teaching in Tacoma
Once Abdul gets to the United States, he plans to land in Tacoma, where he can continue his passion for art.
Elements of Education agreed to make Abdul an employee, if funds for a salary were raised, Jon Ketler, co-director of Elements of Education said.
“We were happy to work with Abdul and Tim, if they could raise the funds of a salary to be paid through Elements of Education,” Ketler told the Gateway.
Abdul will be working in art classrooms, primarily at SOTA, alongside certified teachers as a teaching assistant.
Abdul shipped 35 paintings to Ham to provide to significant donors to an account Elements of Education established for him. They’ve raised half of what they need, with $20,000 left to go.
After his first year in the United States with Elements of Education, it will be up to both parties if they want to continue the arrangement.
Abdul may have to consider additional educational opportunities to obtain teaching certificates to continue working as a teacher’s aid or as an art instructor in Washington schools.
“In the moments when I see the help and support of others to myself and my family, I feel that I am not alone, and I find hope for a better life and future,” Abdul said.
A chance to see Abdul’s paintings locally
Abdul’s artwork will be included in the 45th Annual Oldfield Art Show. This year the art show will be at the Washington State Fairgrounds in Puyallup, in the Fred Oldfield Western Heritage and Art Center, Oct. 1-15.
Abdul hopes to be in the United States with his family for the show.
They will showcase his Gig Harbor scene and include many of his portraits and other work, according to Joella Oldfield, the director of the center. They have also agreed to set aside space for an exhibit at the center for work by Abdul during the State Fair.
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