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Saturday, April 1, 2023

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Threads of Grace: A Story of Survival

An Afghan rug depicting the seal of SDSU’s Homeland Security program is a one-of-a-kind gift from a woman who took up weaving as a child refugee.
By Jeff Ristine

“I will weave a logo of SDSU into a rug so we both have a peek into each other’s world.”

Just look at the detail: 50 evenly spaced, five-pointed stars, all just a little different from one another. The green olive branch in the eagle’s right talon, the tail feathers outlined in gray, the tassel dangling from the graduation cap.

The handmade Afghan rug depicting the logo of San Diego State University’s Graduate Program in Homeland Security is the work of a woman named Faheem Eissar, who lives in Kabul and works as an advisor on public outreach and gender for a national electoral commission. She has never set foot in San Diego.

How it came to be is a story of escape from the Taliban, a childhood spent working day and night, and ultimately, an expression of gratitude for the opportunity education can provide.

“I designed and wove it myself,” Eissar wrote in an email to the Homeland Security program, sent a few weeks before the rug arrived in November. It took her seven months to complete, working in her spare time.

“I have done the cutting, finishing and final washing myself. Everything in it is pure wool, except for the whites that are cotton, to stand out more with the other colors.”

Afghan rugs and carpets are a centuries-old tradition and art form that have endured through the nation’s decades of conflict.

Eissar began weaving at age 7 with her older sister, after her family fled their native village in 1997 to escape the war being waged by the Taliban. “We started weaving so our family could survive the war,” she said. “We woke up before 4 or 5 a.m. and worked until around 11 or 12 (midnight) every day, even the weekends.”

It’s one of the two things she remembers most about her childhood as a refugee. The other is the aroma of her mother’s mung bean rice as it was being prepared in a pressure cooker.

Hard at work

“To make a living, we sat behind the loom, facing the wall, the entire time,” she said. “Making solid and tangible things out of vertical and empty threads.”

“The earnings were terribly small,” Eissar said in a subsequent email. “That is why we had to work day and night to compensate for it,” she said.

“At the time we were earning one Pakistani rupee for every 65 to 68 knots. A carpet of 12 square meters would earn us around 20,000 rupees and it would take three or four persons to weave for well over a month to finish it.”

They did this for seven years, even during a period in which Faheema managed to attend school part-time.

The income helped pay for the essential needs of a family of 10, constantly on the move. The family’s flight took them to Pakistan (twice), Iran and Kabul (also twice), and after the United States toppled the Taliban in the wake of 9/11 they returned to Afghanistan for good.

Wanting to study abroad, Eissar enrolled at the private Hanover College in Indiana but later returned to her home country—and weaving.

A childhood friend named Eesa Ahmadi accounts for the SDSU connection that would follow. Ahmadi obtained a master’s degree from the Homeland Security program in 2018.

Launched in 2004, the graduate program identifies its purpose as “to develop professionals who help ease human suffering, respond to emergencies, and increase global security.” It offers service opportunities through established relationships with the American Red Cross, law enforcement and the intelligence community, and now has more than 1,000 alumni.

Lance Larson, co-director of the homeland security program, said Ahmadi came to SDSU hoping the master’s degree would give him a better chance of running for office in his home country.

Ahmadi returned to Afghanistan after graduating, bubbling with enthusiasm over issues of homeland security, conflict and war. When Eissar showed him some new rugs she had designed, he teased her for selling them at what he regarded as a low cost.

“I told Eesa that I will weave a logo of SDSU into a rug so we both have a peek into each other’s world,” she wrote. “You at my weaving, and I at your university.”

“I told him since he is so enthusiastic about his education, and all he does is talk about his school, I will make you something that you can present to your university as a gift of grace for the opportunity and the support they have provided for you.”

Passion and endurance

Measuring roughly three feet by four feet, the rug reproduces the highly detailed program logo which is itself based on the obverse side of the Great Seal of the United States.

Larson calls the rug “a work of passion” and a testament both to Eissar’s endurance and the humanitarian goals of his program. “The reason for what we do is safety and security not just in the U.S. but around the world,” he said.

The rug eventually will be placed on display in the department, located on the ground floor of the Chemical Sciences Laboratory building.

Eissar said her work was done out of gratitude to SDSU for the “wonderful opportunity” it provided her friend.

“With the knowledge and abilities he has gained, I’m sure he will be a great asset to this war-stricken country of ours and to his new home, the land of opportunities.”

Eissar was asked if she understood what a hardship she had endured, by Western standards, in her childhood as she learned her craft.

“I did it then because I thought I had to,” she said. “Later I became bitter to think about how unfair it was to me as a child.

"But I have a different take on it now.”

Threads of Grace: A Gallery
Here are some detailed views of Faheema Eissar's rug for the Graduate Program in Homeland Security, and some of her other works in Afghanistan.