Artist honors refugees in a language that transcends borders: the emoji

Hangama Amiri
Hangama Amiri ’20 M.F.A.

Hangama Amiri ’20 M.F.A. was a first grader in 1996 when her family escaped Taliban oppression in Afghanistan. They lived as refugees in Pakistan, and later Tajikistan, before immigrating to Canada in 2005, settling in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

A painter since childhood, Amiri’s journey brought her to the Yale School of Art, where she studied in the Painting and Printmaking Department. She lives in New Haven and has a studio in Erector Square where she recently produced pieces for shows in Manhattan and Toronto. 

Amiri credits the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Refugee Agency, for facilitating her family’s move to Canada. So she was particularly delighted when the agency asked her to design an emoji to help publicize World Refugee Day (June 20), an international day to honor refugees.

I was thrilled to be part of this project,” she said. “The agency means a lot to me and my family. Without its help, we would never have found a new home in Canada.”

The emoji, which will be paired on Twitter with the hashtag #worldrefugeeday, features a blue heart floating between two cupped hands, one above it and one below. The hands are positioned in opposite directions, the top comes from the left and the bottom from the right.

It symbolizes support and love from the east and the west,” Amiri said. The heart also represents Earth, she said, while the hands stand for humanity.

The UNHCR estimates that there are at least 79.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, including about 26 million refugees. Conflicts in Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Somalia have driven millions of people to seek refuge in nearby countries. Meanwhile, the number of refugees admitted into the United States has fallen from nearly 85,000 in 2016 to about 11,800 in 2020.

Amiri said it is appropriate to set aside a day to honor those, like her, who have been forced to flee their homes. 

There are so many crises in the world, including in my country, Afghanistan,” she said. “It is important to think about what people are going through. It is important to show them we care about them.”

Amiri’s work has explored themes of cross-cultural dialogue, human rights, and feminism, including the treatment of women in Afghanistan. When she arrived at the School of Art in 2018, she mostly made figurative paintings. With support and encouragement from teachers and classmates, she broadened her artistic range. She began making collages and working with textiles. 

The program gave me the confidence to experiment,” she said. 

She fondly recalls conversations with peers and mentors about how to incorporate their experiences into their work. 

While at Yale, she engaged with New Haven’s refugee population, leading embroidery workshops with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, a local nonprofit agency that helps refugees and other displaced people establish new lives in Connecticut.

After graduating, she chose to remain in New Haven and is applying for a visa to reside there long term. She finds support and inspiration in the city’s vibrant community of artists. As an added bonus, the studio space is cheaper than in New York City, she said. 

Amiri traveled often to New York during the pandemic, visiting its Afghani diaspora communities in the Flushing and Jackson Heights neighborhoods in Queens. She would roam the neighborhoods and visit shops. 

I learned a lot about the communities there and my relationship to them,” she said.

Her observations on those forays helped inspire “Wandering Amidst the Colors,” a recent installation of her work at Albertz Benda, a gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, that explored the concept of “home.”

As an artist, I work a lot from childhood memories of Afghanistan and leaving the country, my home, at an early age,” she said. “I revisit those memories all the time. When I revisit them, something new always emerges.”

Currently, she is preparing for a solo show opening in September at the Cooper Cole gallery in Toronto. 

It is a very expressive set of work,” she said. “There are figurative pieces, dreams, surrealist elements in the pieces.”

As an artist she enjoys the challenge of experimenting and finding new approaches to her work. 

If I repeat myself, I see it as a sign of failure,” she said. “I like to invent new things in the practice and see what other hidden messages I can discover.”

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Media Contact

Donald Palumbo: donald.palumbo@yale.edu, 203-747-5652