In a tiny classroom in a migrant camp in Greece, 18-year-old Roya Rasuli teaches painting to a group of lively young girls. For Rasuli, it is also a lesson in female empowerment.
“What is your message for women, for girls? Rasuli, who was born in Iran to Afghan refugees, asks her class. “To be strong!” one of the girls shouts.
Some of Rasuli’s artwork hangs on the blue wall behind her, including a painting of the green-eyed “Afghan Girl” whose iconic 1985 National Geographic photo in a red headscarf has become a symbol of the wars in Afghanistan. Rasuli painted her without a mouth. “I wanted to show how women in Afghanistan are because they can’t talk, nobody listens to them and they don’t have rights,” Rasuli said, his fingers stained with black paint.
“I think that’s the situation for a lot of women. Maybe in Syria, maybe in Iraq, maybe in Pakistan, maybe in some countries in Europe.” Rasuli had never picked up a paintbrush before arriving in Greece three years ago, but has since taught herself to draw.
She and around 500 asylum seekers – mostly Afghans – live in the Thiva camp, one of dozens set up across Greece since Europe’s 2015 migration crisis, when nearly a million refugees and migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond arrived on the continent through Greece. She leaves the camp at 5 a.m. for a 1.5-hour bus ride to the Athens School of Fine Arts to attend classes, from where she hopes to receive a scholarship to study full time.
“When I start painting (it’s) like I’m traveling to another world, to another place where there’s peace,” said Rasuli, who also learned English. Another of his paintings, in the style of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”, shows a woman dressed in the traditional blue Afghani burqa playing a guitar.
“I wanted to show that they can be whatever they want… They are free to do anything, to believe in their power and in what they like to do. It’s good to be themselves, it’s It’s good to talk,” she said. Rasuli, whose class in Thiva camp in central Greece meets weekly through a UNICEF-funded program run by Greek charity Solidarity Now, says she hopes to inspire others young women to pursue their goals.
“I changed my life with my hopes and my dreams,” she said. “I will do my best to show them that they can do whatever they want, be free.”
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