In August 2021, Sharifa Sharifi was working as general manager of the Afghan National Gallery in Herat, Afghanistan’s third largest city, when the government collapsed and the Taliban took control of her country. As an employee of the fallen government, a professional woman, an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, and an artist whose paintings celebrated the female body, Sharifa, who goes by the name Elja, knew her life was in grave danger.
“I didn’t feel safe,” Elja says. “I couldn’t believe that night when, among the noise of bombs, shootings, and rockets, our beautiful Herat fell. Although I was still alive, I had become like the walking dead. I decided that I had to get out of the country. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I had to.”
After a harrowing month of hiding out in the homes of various family members and stashing dozens of her paintings in attics, Elja was able to leave the country by pretending to be part of a friend’s family who had visas to travel to Iran.
In August 2022—one year after the Taliban takeover sent her fleeing for her life—Elja arrived in Ithaca and was welcomed into the home of a Cornell faculty member and to her new role at the Johnson Museum. Elja is now working with the Afghanistan Assistance Clinic run by Cornell Law School to process her asylum application, a complex effort that could ultimately grant her the right to remain in the U.S.