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Afghan artists in California's Bay Area step up to help artists still in Afghanistan

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One of the most endangered groups in Afghanistan is artists. Many have fled since the Taliban came to power in August, or they've been forced to give up their work because of the hard-line Islamic regime's stance against most forms of self-expression. Meanwhile, Afghan artists in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has one of the biggest Afghan immigrant populations in the U.S., are stepping up to help. Chloe Veltman of member station KQED reports.

USTAD FARIDA MAHWASH: (Singing in non-English language).

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: Kabul, my heart cries out for you so much that it will die in the end from your sorrow - this is the opening line of a song the world-renowned Afghan vocalist Ustad Farida Mahwash says she reaches for in times of struggle.

MAHWASH: (Singing in non-English language).

VELTMAN: From backstage at a San Francisco theatre before one of her concerts - the artist speaks Dari. Through an interpreter, she tells me she fled Afghanistan in 1991 in the wake of political turmoil to join family in California. Her adopted home felt like a safe haven after the decades of discrimination and threats she suffered as a trailblazer in a culture that largely frowns upon, if not outright bans, women artists.

MAHWASH: (Non-English language spoken).

VELTMAN: The singer also tells me it was unbearable from afar to see how artists fared under the last Taliban regime starting in the mid-1990s. They tortured and killed artists, banned music and destroyed artworks. Mahwash says now that the extremists are back again, she fears artists will once again be silenced.

MAHWASH: (Non-English language spoken).

VELTMAN: The current leadership has said they won't resort to such draconian tactics. But in recent months, Taliban militants killed popular comedian Nazar Mohammad "Khasha" and opened fire at a wedding where music was being played, among other incidents. Gazelle Samizay says Afghan artists have been crying out for help. In recent months, the San Francisco-based photographer and video maker has dedicated herself to answering their call.

GAZELLE SAMIZAY: It started as a small thing of, like, oh, maybe we can just raise money for them so that they can get out of the country, but it just snowballed.

VELTMAN: Samizay, who was born in Kabul, is a member of the Afghan American Artists and Writers Association. So far, her group has raised more than $40,000 in emergency funds for Afghan artists.

SAMIZAY: This is an unprecedented time in terms of the Afghan diaspora really coming together and organizing, and that is a silver lining to this mess.

VELTMAN: While Samizay put her own art-making practice on hold for the cause, others are using their art in support of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VELTMAN: The rock band Kabul Dreams performed a concert in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in November to raise awareness about the crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KABUL DREAMS: (Singing in non-English language).

VELTMAN: Bassist and keyboard player, Siddique Ahmad, says the band relocated from Kabul to Oakland in 2013 after years of persecution back home.

SIDDIQUE AHMAD: Just going on stage and saying that, you know, we're a band from Afghanistan, we're playing music - that in itself is our statement.

VELTMAN: But for dancer Samia Karimi, who moved to the Bay Area from her native Kabul as a kid, just going on stage is no longer enough.

SAMIA KARIMI: Is this the right time for me to put on my dress and be a pretty little, you know, girl in the background of a music video? No. And that role I played was a dance artist - it won't come back.

VELTMAN: She now sees her art as a platform for political expression. She's doing things like using part of the tuition money she receives from teaching dance classes online to raise funds for artists on the run from Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KARIMI: Like, extend as far as you can. Good, Robin (ph). Good, Maria (ph). Yeah.

VELTMAN: Karimi says she wants others to think about how they can use their creative practice to make change.

KARIMI: So I ask all Afghan artists, like, how can you use your art form? How can you be a megaphone for these voices?

VELTMAN: She adds, if their stories don't get heard, then history will again be written by the oppressors. For NPR news, I'm Chloe Veltman in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.