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U.S. veterans use art to help female Afghan soldiers who fled their country process their pain

Art helps female Afghan army veterans heal
U.S. military veterans use art to help displaced female Afghan army veterans 04:22

In a sunlit gallery high above Manhattan, artist Jenn Hassin is trying to repurpose the tattered threads of lives unraveled. 

Hassin, a U.S. Air Force veteran, didn't create the art on the gallery's walls. Much of it comes from female Afghan military veterans who evacuated the country after the Taliban regained power more than two years ago. For the past year, Hassin has been hosting Afghan servicewomen at her studio near Austin, Texas, where she teaches them how to transform beloved items of clothing like hijabs, hats and even uniforms into colorful paper pulp that can be molded and shaped into anything they want. 

One of those "escape artists," Mahnaz Akbari, told CBS News that the art came from her heart and helps her process the chaos of the fall of her country and the loss of her hard-fought military career. 

"I really had a passion to join the military because I really love to be in uniform," Akbari said, noting that it was "so hard" to convince her family to let her join the military. 

Even after the U.S. removed the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001, the country was still a hard place for women. Akbari and another soldier, Nazdana Hassani, said their uniforms shielded them, marking them as fierce and capable members of a female tactical platoon. Akbari said she even did more than 150 night raids with the military. 

Art on display. CBS Mornings

Pride in their service turned to anguish in 2021, when U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan and the country fell back under Taliban control. With help from the U.S. servicewomen who had trained them, Akbari and Hassani made it out of Kabul, traveling to the United States, though at the time they didn't know where they were going.

"When the aircraft landed, I asked one of the people there where we are. And she told me 'Welcome to the U.S.,'" Akbari recalled. 

The women had to burn their uniforms before fleeing, leaving a part of themselves in the cinders. 

"It's really weird to say, but these physical items, they hold so much weight that we don't even realize," said former U.S. Army Airborne officer Erringer Helbling, who co-founded Command Purpose to provide support for women leaving the military. "When I put on my uniform, the community saw me a certain way. And when you don't have that, and people look at you, it's just different. I lost my voice. I lost my community." 

Helbling's Command Purpose joined forces with another non-profit, Sisters of Service, to create the Manhattan exhibit showcasing the Afghan soldiers' art. 

"What's been really powerful about this project is allowing us to simply be women in whatever way that means to us," Helbling said. 

The women making the art said that they have found many of their experiences to be similar. 

"War is so negative, but there's also this, like, extremely positive, beautiful thing about this sisterhood that I've found myself being part of," Hassin said. 

The exhibit will continue through the end of the month. All of the artwork is available online.

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