Nonprofit hopes to bring refugees to safety


Watch now: A tiny Madison nonprofit hopes to bring refugees to safety

In the tiny office he carved from the back of his Middleton garage, Ben Schumaker opens his laptop and pulls up a haunting black-and-white image.

Ben Schumaker, director and founder of the Memory Project, does his international work out of a small office he fashioned in the back of his Middleton garage. 

A young woman with penetrating dark eyes, an opaque hijab hiding her nose and mouth, gazes back from the screen.

The 20-year-old woman, Roya, took that photo as she and her family were fleeing Kabul, Afghanistan, for the Pakistani border in August. Roya formerly worked for an American nongovernmental organization, or NGO, that promoted youth development and the education of girls in Afghanistan. She was also studying to be a journalist.

Roya, an Afghan evacuee whose family Schumaker is trying to bring to Madison, appears in a photo on Schumaker’s office laptop. 

Part of Roya’s job was linked to faraway Madison: The NGO she worked for partnered with the Memory Project — a nonprofit founded by Schumaker when he was a UW-Madison student in 2004 — by connecting it with schools in Afghanistan to promote its program of international friendship and art exchange.

But now she was in danger.

She had been outspoken about leadership development for girls in interviews on TV with female journalists. She had become a role model for girls, rising from abject poverty to a key role with an American nonprofit.

And when the U.S. military pulled out of Afghanistan and the country’s government swiftly fell to Taliban insurgents, she no longer felt safe.

Now, Schumaker — whose own job until recently mostly involved collaborating with art teachers and couriers abroad — is determined to bring Roya and her family to Madison to start a new life.

“I’ve committed to them. They are now family,” said Schumaker, whose own wife, parents, 10-year-old daughter and extended family support his efforts.

Roya, who did not want her name used, took this photo as she was leaving her homeland in Afghanistan for the Pakistani border. 

In keeping with his pledge, Schumaker traveled to Pakistan in September to meet Roya, her widowed mother, and her two teenage siblings in person. The family is living in a house with 23 other people with connections to the same U.S. nonprofit, now in a sort of limbo as they await visas or sponsors to help them come to the West as refugees.

“My family is their family, and their family is now my family,” Schumaker said.

In Pakistan he made a promise.

“I am your brother,” he told Roya, “and you are my sister.”

A new home in Madison

Schumaker is one of many Americans responding to the diaspora of Afghans who fled their homeland.

Jewish Social Services of Madison, for example, is expecting about 25 Afghan evacuees whom they plan to resettle in the Madison area, in addition to the 100 other refugees from around the world for whom the agency will find homes in the coming year.

As the only resettlement agency for refugees in Dane County, Jewish Social Services of Madison helps families find a place to live, supplies initial rent, stocks the kitchen and has a culturally appropriate meal waiting when the families arrive, said executive director Dawn Berney. For three months, the agency also provides support to integrate the newcomers into the Madison community, helping to enroll children in school, connecting adults with English classes and setting up doctor appointments.

The agency’s work is supported by a $1,200 monthly allowance from the federal government for each refugee they help resettle — which, along with donations, pays for everything from rent to Metro bus cards and clothing, Berney said. The need is great for all refugees who come to the community, she said, not just those from Afghanistan.

Ben Schumaker, director and founder of the Memory Project, looks at renderings of Afghani children created by American art students. 

The all-volunteer organization Open Doors for Refugees, which furnishes and sets up apartments for incoming refugees and provides rides when they first arrive, also provides essential help. “We couldn’t do what we do without them,” Berney said.

Other refugees — including those formerly employed by a U.S. nonprofit — have to work through different channels.

Roya prepares to cross the border from Afghanistan to Pakistan. She and her family had to make four attempts.

If Roya, for example, had worked for the U.S. military, it might have won her and her family a highly coveted seat on a government evacuation flight out of Kabul and a special immigrant visa, or SIV, into the United States.

Daughter of a young widow

As a young widow in Afghanistan, Roya’s mother, now 37, had struggled to support her children with a job cleaning floors at a hotel. Her daughter’s salary had lifted the family out of poverty until the Afghan government crumbled. It took them four harrowing attempts to cross into Pakistan.

It was the family’s second turn as refugees. Roya’s mother and father first met as teenagers when both of their families had fled the Taliban into Iran. They eventually returned to Afghanistan, but when Roya’s father could not find work there, he paid a human smuggler to help him return to Iran to find a job. A week later, he was found dead.

Roya’s mother was urged to abandon her children and start her life over with a new husband rather than struggle as a widow and a single mother. She refused.

Today, in the safe house in Pakistan, the family shares a single bedroom and sleeps on mats on the floor. In all, there are 13 children, eight women and six men living there, and at first none dared leave the house, Schumaker said. He hopes eventually to find sponsors for all of them.

“The people in this house were all part of our team,” he said, “and they got left behind.”

More than 200,000 portraits

The Memory Project is an international effort to create “a kinder world through art,” as its slogan goes. Since Schumaker founded it 18 years ago, the project has recruited tens of thousands of teenage artists on six continents to create more than 200,000 portraits of children living in orphanages, refugee camps and other difficult circumstances around the world.

Memory Project founder and director Ben Schumaker sorts through portraits of children made by teenage artists for the nonprofit whose goal is “creating a kinder world through art.” 

Photos are taken of the children abroad, then sent to student artists who draw or paint the portrait — often studying the face and eyes of their subject for hours, finding a unique kind of connection and empathy.

“Making a connection with a person on the other side of the world is really powerful for them,” said Beth Crook de Valdez, an art teacher at Waunakee High School, whose students sign up to participate in a Memory Project twice a year.

When finished with a child’s portrait, the artists tape their own photo and a few words to the back of it so the recipient learns a bit about them. The portraits are then hand-delivered to each child via international courier.

Some of the portraits done at Waunakee High School were of children in Afghanistan, Crook de Valdez said, and she posted copies of them in a display case outside her classroom.

“When everything shifted in Afghanistan, it was a heart-breaking moment,” she said. “You see those faces and think, ‘Wow, those kiddos are really going through such changes right now.’”

In recent years, the Memory Project has developed more contacts in Afghanistan and Syria.

“We were inspired to do this in countries where we had some political and cultural tension,” Schumaker said.

Roya, who did not want her full name used for security reasons, delivers a Memory Project portrait made by an art student to a child in a girls’ school in Afghanistan. Roya has since fled her homeland to Pakistan. 

In May 2021, Roya handed out finished Memory Project portraits in a ceremony for students at a girls school in Kabul. Afghanistan’s minister of education, the government’s highest-ranking education official, also attended the ceremony, Schumaker said.

Another core member of the Memory Project was Ramish, who photographed several thousand children in Kabul and other locations during the four years the Memory Project worked in Afghanistan. Ramish, his wife and two children are now with the same group of evacuees as Roya. But after five failed attempts to cross the border out of Afghanistan, his parents and younger sisters, who were originally with them, gave up and turned back.

Both Roya and Ramish asked that only their first names be used because of security concerns. The nonprofit that employed them does not want its name published because it is still working with the Taliban to try to continue its humanitarian work in Afghanistan, Schumaker said.

‘A lot of potential’

As the sponsor of Roya’s family, Schumaker envisions buying a condo for Roya’s family a few blocks away from his home in a neighborhood he describes as ethnically diverse. Her siblings could enroll in classes to polish their English language skills, which they are already working on in Pakistan, and Roya could resume her journalism studies.

“They are super-talented people with a lot of potential,” he said.

Prayer flags from Nepal hang above the home office door of Memory Project founder Ben Schumaker in Middleton.

After telling Roya’s story to the New York Times, Schumaker connected with an immigration lawyer in Massachusetts who is working to get Roya and her family admitted to the U.S. on “humanitarian parole,” granted for urgent humanitarian reasons or emergency. Schumaker will be their sole financial support until the family can support itself.

With donations coming in from family, friends and through the Memory Project website, plus $20,000 from his own pocket, Schumaker isn’t worried about financial support. “What scares me is (the immigration system) not working,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ramish, the Memory Project photographer, has found a sponsor in Bill Small, a portrait artist and longtime supporter of the Memory Project. Small, a retired city planner, has lived all over the world, including in Saudi Arabia for three years. Now a widower, he lives in a large house in the San Francisco Bay Area with three unused bedrooms and two unused bathrooms that he plans to turn over to Ramish and his family.

“These were people who were basically working with NGOs in Afghanistan, helping other people,” Small said, “and who now find themselves in a desperate situation.”

The staff members who worked with the Memory Project in Afghanistan were mostly young adults who “have embraced the Western style of democracy and freedom,” said Schumaker, who checks in daily with Roya and her family on WhatsApp, and hopes he will be able to fly to Pakistan in four to six months to bring them to their new home in Madison.

They committed to “empower girls and women, and create a fair and just society,” he said. “All of them were committed to creating that in Afghanistan.”

State Journal reporter Emily Hamer contributed to this report.

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