Escaping the Taliban

How Ben Schumaker ’03, MSW’06 helped Afghan colleagues flee to Pakistan.

Ben Schumaker sits with Afghan refugees

Schumaker (second from right, with Afghan refugees) uses the Memory Project to connect American and international youth. Courtesy of Ben Schumaker

On August 15, 2021, the day the Taliban entered Kabul and took control of the presidential palace, Ben Schumaker ’03, MSW’06 reached out to his Afghan colleague, Ramish, to say he’d heard the news. Could he help?

“Thank you,” Ramish replied. “Our hearts are broken. Our country is lost.” His plans were unclear, but he’d be in touch if Schumaker could assist.

The two were connected through the Memory Project, a youth arts organization that Schumaker launched in 2004 while a student at UW–Madison. A trip to Guatemala inspired Schumaker to recruit art students in the United States to paint portraits of children in orphanages around the world.

With the help of U.S. high school art teachers and nonprofits working with orphanages (which sent photos of children wanting portraits), the Memory Project, featured in the Summer 2006 issue of On Wisconsin, was born.

As of 2021, some 300,000 young people in 55 countries had participated. Schumaker, who operates the project out of his home in Middleton, Wisconsin, has visited 45 countries to deliver the finished portraits.

He hadn’t been to Afghanistan, but the Memory Project started working there four years ago, shipping the portraits to two Afghan partners — Ramish, who worked with boys’ groups, and Roya, a young woman who worked with girls.

“We had an event,” Schumaker says, “where the highest education official in the country came and presented portraits to the girls, to acknowledge and honor them.” The Taliban takeover put girls’ education — and the lives of anyone who’d helped U.S. nonprofits — in jeopardy.

On August 19, Ramish told Schumaker that he hoped to take his wife and kids to Pakistan, but they needed money.

“Okay,” Schumaker wrote back. “But what about Roya?” Ramish said he’d check.

Schumaker broadcast the need for funds to his network and was surprised and grateful to raise $50,000 in a week. He’d need it. Roya and her family would accompany Ramish to Pakistan, part of a group that also included other nonprofit workers.

There was no guarantee they’d be allowed to cross, but Schumaker said he would fly to Islamabad with money for food, rent, and more.

Despite initial refusals and chaos at the border, they made it across and met Schumaker.

“It was so meaningful to see Ramish and Roya in person,” Schumaker says, adding that the recent events “reinvigorated my passion to use the Memory Project to connect American youth with [international] youth. I love that the art helps kids on each side see themselves in each other.”

Published in the Spring 2022 issue

Tags: Afghanistan, Alumni, International

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