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Meet the Afghan Canadian artist who created this year’s World Refugee Day emoji

By: Nicholas Keung
Growing up, Hangama Amiri was always on the move with her family, searching for peace and security. And the UNHCR was always part of the young Afghan refugee’s journey.
So, when the United Nations refugee agency invited her to design the 2021 World Refugee Day emoji for Twitter, she says, she just jumped at the opportunity as a way to give back to the organization that has helped her family all along, including bringing them to their new home in Canada in 2005.
“UNHCR is part of my history. It really makes a lot of sense for me to take on this project,” the 32-year-old said from her studio in New Haven, where she lives after finishing a master’s degree in fine arts from Yale University last year.
“We were helped by this international organization and it’s an opportunity for me to give back. … It’s a real honor.”
Amiri’s design, officially launched on Twitter on Sunday, shows two hands reaching out from the East and the West, above and underneath a heart in blue, symbolizing the Mother Earth.
“This emoji represents love, support and togetherness. Heart is a universal symbol. Everyone sees the heart and knows that it’s about love,” explains Amiri, whose family resettled in Halifax by way of Pakistan and Tajikistan.
“The hands show the support, power and union, in circular motion between the heart.”
The UN Refugee Agency has partnered with Twitter since 2016 to promote the event, held globally every June 20, to celebrate the resilience of migrants displaced by wars, conflicts, violence and natural disasters.
Social media is a central part of the advocacy and communication work of the agency, which has 2.5 million followers on Twitter and millions of supporters across different platforms such as Instagram and TikTok.
“It helps us to create solidarity with refugees online. Hundreds and thousands of people can tweet the emoji online and share their stories,” says Pauline Eluère, a communications officer of the UNHCR office in New York. One of those shared stories will be Amiri’s.
Born in Peshawar, Pakistan, Amiri and her family moved back to Kabul after the Russian invasion ended in 1989. When the Taliban came in 1996, they once again fled.
Her father, an engineer, would take the family to Tajikistan in 1999 before he left them behind for Denmark and Norway as he sought a lasting home for the family.
“My father was seeking asylum in Central Asia and Europe while we were in Pakistan and Tajikistan. We were separated from him most of the time under those hard circumstances. The only memories I had of him was the photos he sent us,” recalled Amiri.
After spending six years in Tajikistan, Amiri, her mother and three siblings were resettled in Halifax by the UNHCR and Canadian government.
Growing up in constant chaos and limbo, Amiri said, she always found solace in drawing.
“It gives you a space to reflect. We all know what’s going on outside. But somehow, the minute I hold the pencil and paper, and put my head down, there’s like the whole other world,” she says. “For me, it was like really meditative.”
The new life in Canada was still full of challenges, with the new language and culture that couldn’t have been more different than where they came from. The family remained apart from her father for another three years until he joined them here in 2008.
After finishing an undergraduate degree in fine arts from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University, Amiri became a Canadian Fulbright and Postgraduate Fellow at Yale.
While she studied painting and printmaking, she is also a textile artist known for her creations of large-scale textile “paintings” inspired by her Afghan heritage, with common Asian fabrics such as silk and satin and chiffon. Her works have been exhibited in Canada, Europe and the United States.
Amiri was busy preparing for her upcoming show in Toronto’s Cooper Cole Gallery this September, when she was commissioned by the UNHCR for this year’s emoji design.
“We live a fast-paced life. Dedicating an international day to refugees is a way for us to stop for a moment and reflect on the lives and situations of refugees and those who are displaced,” says Amiri. “No one chooses to be a refugee. We all deserve to have a home and to be safe.”
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star.

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The Kabul Times.