Dec 1, 2021

Art Ignites Comfort: Mural Arts Welcomes Afghan Evacuees

by: Brian Wallace, Guest Contributor

It’s typical to introduce readers to complicated topics with a personal anecdote, but we can’t do that here. We can’t interview and name any of the individuals and families — over 25,000 people — who passed through Philadelphia International Airport after their hurried departure from Afghanistan. These people must remain anonymous due to the danger their past association with American and other forces poses to their relatives who remain in Afghanistan, and they must be spared the risk of re-traumatization that questions about their passage might cause them. We can, however, provide a clear sense of the experiences these people have undergone by honing in on the focus point of their passage: the familiar but stressful environment of the airport.

Whether you work at an airport, bring passengers or freight to or from an airport, or have traveled through one for work, vacation, or family celebration or memorial, you know well the combined anxiety and boredom this location generates: the arbitrary instructions, the lack of helpful personnel, the overwhelming security presence. Add to this the effects of COVID-19 safeguards on travel. Now, imagine, if you possibly can, multiplying the impact of all of this by the following factors: you’ve lived in a country wracked by war and violence for generations, you’ve narrowly escaped the sudden collapse of that country’s tenuous peace, you’ve left family members, a home — a whole life — behind, you’ve begged, bribed, or fought your way to an airport, over fences, across runways, and into military aircraft (or watched your parents do this), and then you’ve flown with a sudden bizarre speed across continents and oceans to a cordoned-off airport terminal at the edge of a large city in the United States.

Two Porch Light staff members sit on the floor with two young children, surrounded by papers and markers and a sign that says All Are Welcome in English, Pashto and Farsi at the airport.

Porch Light staff members color with young children at the airport. Photo by Dave Rosenblum.

We know, from first-hand accounts by Mural Arts Porch Light staff, some details of the evacuees’ experience at Philadelphia’s airport. They arrive in groups of between three and four people up to many dozens at a time. They try to make themselves comfortable on airport furniture; they try to make themselves clean in airport restrooms. They undergo numerous rounds of debriefing interviews, identification checks, and health exams, never knowing how long these processes will take or what their outcomes will be. These people do not know where they are headed. They work with volunteer interpreters. They put on donated clothing, shoes, and backpacks bearing American brands. Attuned, from lived experience, to the signals and hints of the powerful, they know that they are expected to conform to the behavioral norms of this airport, with its murmur of bureaucracy and air conditioning. What is the difference between this smoothly efficient airport and the last one they experienced, whose physical dangers, demand for split-second decisions, and sheer sensory overload has left them gravely upset and possibly scarred for life? Put another way, what is the connection between these two sites?

A green sign decorated with flowers and featuring a drawing of a city skyline at night says,

One of the welcoming signs created by Porch Light. Photo by Dave Rosenblum.

These airports represent the diametric poles of an empire. Philadelphia International Airport exists because the United States and its political, military, and economic allies maintain geographical zones of security within which travel and trade can take place with only the obstacles of inconvenience, frustration — and, in a different register, capital accumulation, low worker wages, and environmental degradation — to address. Kabul International Airport, the departure point for most of the Afghan evacuees who flew to Philadelphia, is the embodiment of imperial failure: despite mammoth investments of money, effort, and weaponry, that airport was lost, but not before it — along with Afghanistan as a whole — had been the site of massive psychological stress, along with supernormal profit, worker exploitation, and environmental damage. Along with the utter terror they faced before and during their escape from that distant airfield and the estrangement they confronted upon their arrival in Philadelphia, the evacuees have been obliged to embody a symbolic connection between these two airports. Because of the failure of the empire to protect them, these 25,000 evacuees have been asked, in the moment of their escape, to span the basic opposing manifestations of this empire — the complex, metropolitan, highly ordered element of its core, and the raw, hierarchical, contingent element of its periphery. 

This unspoken bargain compounded the evacuees’ already psychologically stressful transition. Stuck, not quite settled in their new country, in a setting that unsettlingly mirrors the site of the last moments in their old country, the evacuees were being forced to re-live, again and again, the trauma of their incomplete flight from Afghanistan. It’s no wonder that many of them exhibited signs of acute mental health difficulty. Fortunately, as part of its multi-agency response to the entry of the evacuees to the city, Philadephia’s Office of Immigrant Affairs reached out to Mural Arts’ Porch Light program to help immediately improve the evacuees’ environment. Echoing the founding of Mural Arts itself as a focused anti-graffiti project, the initial request from the city involved one task: the creation of welcoming and directional signage. Before long, though, Porch Light staff training and experience in refugee mental health and well-being — honed in Philadelphia’s immigrant-rich neighborhoods — prompted numerous contacts with individual evacuees and collaborations with other agencies. With sponsorship and in-kind supplies from an anonymous donor, Staples, and Dick Blick, Porch Light launched and facilitated initiatives such as approachable, low-stakes art tables for children, a ladies’ lounge/women-centered space for discussion and mutual support, and informal get-togethers where traditional music was played and shared via YouTube: dancing and laughing ensued in baggage claim.

Two volunteers stand behind a table full of crafts in a corner of the airport, interacting with three children of various ages.

Volunteers help children express themselves through crafts. Photo by Dave Rosenblum.

The therapeutic benefits of these activities were subtle but noticeable. Participating evacuees said — and behaved as though — their stress levels decreased. Interpreters and counselors commented specifically that the vicarious trauma they were experiencing was lessened through participation in the activities. The programs were put into place, modified, and — with the diminished flow of evacuees — largely ended too quickly for extensive formal evaluation, but the core Porch Light staff and volunteer group will be developing similar programs for the many tens of thousands of evacuees living at military bases over the next year, and they’ll be bringing lessons learned back to the Mural Arts’ teams working in neighborhoods across Philadelphia, many of which mirror all too clearly the systemic failures of the American imperium.

Last updated: Dec 1, 2021

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