Rebel with a cause

These Artists Survived Turmoil Abroad. Now They Have an Art Exhibition.

Eleven Houston refugees or immigrants will exhibit their work at the third annual YMCA International "Triumph of the Human Spirit" show.

By Susie Tommaney September 26, 2018

Tekie Gebremichael, Our love and the two identical love.

What does it mean for an artist to struggle? Is it balancing the need for creative expression against the commercial demands of a gallery? Meeting deadlines? Deciding between buying paint or paying the rent? For the 11 artists participating in the upcoming “Triumph of the Human Spirit” art show, the stakes are much, much higher.

Sania Wafeq, one of the artists, watched the erosion of women’s rights in her native Afghanistan as the burqa replaced contemporary fashion. Girls were discouraged from learning each time a bomb exploded at school.

Still, Wafeq found ways to persevere, starting a clothing line with her sister and employing female tailors. Later on, she produced a star-studded fashion show with dignitaries and VIPs in the audience. But in allowing men to attend that fashion show and gaze upon “exposed” women, Wafeq finally went too far. “I think somebody took a picture. We didn’t find the person, they sent those out to social media,” she says. “I got threats from the Taliban.”

Sania Wafeq, The Village.

When she refused to waver from her business plan, her family was again threatened while Wafeq was away attending a conference in the U.S. “I received a call from my mom and dad, they told me that [the Taliban] told them that they would not see me alive.” That's when she filed for asylum.

YMCA of Greater Houston International Services presents its annual “Triumph of the Human Spirit” to nurture the artistic careers of immigrants like Wafeq, introduce them to collectors, help them with biographies and business cards, and—perhaps most importantly—process grief and loss through creative expression.

It’s just another way that the organization has helped almost 30,000 refugees find housing and rental assistance, obtain legal counsel, take English classes, and receive services. We wrote about the refugee crisis in Houston, and its challenges, in depth when we covered last year’s show.

Statistics provided by the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. show that, from 2000 to 2013, Houston’s immigrant population grew at nearly twice the national rate. And while all eyes are on the Oval Office to learn the fate of border walls, Dreamers, and detained immigrant children, the fact remains that more than 68 million people have been forcibly displaced from their home countries by global conflict.

Thamer Al-Sheikh, Adam and Eve.

Wafeq understands the magnitude of the problem and says she tries not to use the services of nonprofit agencies, freeing up those resources for others who need it more. And she never forgets the troubles that continue back home.

“War is going on. People are dying. Explosions are happening. Moms are losing their kids. Everybody is losing a lot of their family members every day, every day. I was trying to share their emotions with other people," she says of her art. "They confuse how we used to live and what is going on now; we’re just surviving, we’re not living a real life now."

Wafeq uses proceeds from the sale of her art to help Afghan street children who are often illiterate and forced to ear income for their families by picking up cans and selling knicknacks; she recently held an exhibition in Oklahoma City and runs an Etsy store with her new line of clothing and jewelry. And she continues working on her fine art, black charcoal and pencil drawings with subtle watercolor accents.

“The reason why I do portraits, I want to share the emotions and the feelings of Afghan people,” says Wafeq, adding that she hopes Houstonians learning about the situation in Afghanistan will also try to help the children and make a difference. 

Other artists exhibiting in “Triumph of the Human Spirit” include Khaleda Serhady, also from Afghanistan; Zineb Trifi-Sjahsam (Algeria); Brayan Valdes (Cuba); Fatema Josh (Malaysia); Tina Al-Debashi (Yemen); Mohammed Baro (Syria); and Tekie Gebremichael (Eritrea). Three immigrants from Iraq are represented: Thamer Al-Sheikh, Wissam Al-Khafajy and Taghreid Al-Jaber.

And, to make sure collectors are in the buying mood, organizers are turning “Triumph of the Human Spirit” into a festive event with hors d’oeuvre from the artists’ countries of origin. We took a glance at Chef Dominick Lee’s menu, and our advice is to arrive early and sample everything. To represent Afghanistan, Chef Lee is preparing shola (rice and mung beans) and kufta (beef meatballs). For Eritrea he is preparing tsebhi derho (spicy chicken), hummus for Syria, cardamom coconut cookies for Iraq and Cuban flan for, you guessed it, our neighbor to the southeast.

"Triumph of the Human Spirit," Sept. 28. Tickets $25. St. John's School, 2401 Claremont Lane. 713-659-5566. More info and tickets at

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