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My daughter, Layal, helps paint the wall of the Keystone Café in downtown Pittsburgh. Photo: Provided.

Hello everyone,

Ebtehal here. Today, I want to tell you about my journey toward the wall that would become my mural. 

I started asking everyone about a location for this wall – when I went to open houses at my kids’ school, doctor's appointments, grocery stores and gas stations. One night, I was at dinner with my family at a Turkish restaurant in Pittsburgh. I saw someone who worked there, and I thought maybe he would know a good location. I shared with him what I hoped to do – to paint a mural which would bring people together – and I asked him if he knew a good location for the wall. 

“I am the owner of this restaurant,” he told me, “and I have another cafe location in downtown Pittsburgh. What do you think if it's an indoor wall?” Ecstatic to have found a space, I eagerly told him that is ok with me. 

I painted the first mural on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Not long after, my friends suggested I reach out to Arsenal Middle School in order to place one of my “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges” posters in their school. The principal reached out to me, however, to say that she also wanted to give me an entire wall! I painted that one with fifth and sixth graders – my second mural.

Then, COVID came, and suddenly, we were coming together by staying apart. It was literally isolating. Yet around this time, an entrepreneur I knew told me a singer from the U.K. was going to be performing “Stand By Me” with people from all over the world. I knew I wanted to be a part of it. There were 500 people from different parts of the world singing. It was the beginning of the pandemic, but I realized that I'm not alone. We're all here, together. I wanted to spread that message in Pittsburgh as well.

I am not a singer, so I reached out to different people on social media, and they told me this is a great idea. Deciding to ask people from other parts of the world to join us, I reached out to an entrepreneur in Saudi Arabia who in turn reached out to different entrepreneurs, and we all joined in. Different people from different places came together with the sole purpose of singing – of creating art.

In Pittsburgh, I reached out to my friend Tom who is also an artist, but I asked if he knew any singers. He gave me the name of Samantha, a friend of his who agreed to help. As I was praying, the thought occurred to me to do art and meditation. So, I reached for my friend Aubrey, a yoga instructor, and my friend Sarah, an artist. 

Having decided what I wanted to do, and that I would do it on a Sunday, I told my daughter that we needed a name for this event. “You always make people smile,” she said to me. “What do you think to name it ‘Sunday Smiles?’” 

An invitation for the Sunday Smiles event I helped organize. Photo: Provided.

The four of us – Aubrey, Sarah, Samantha and myself – continued “Sunday Smiles” for a couple of months before going our separate ways. I, however, have continued to do it, inviting different guests and doing art therapy exercises. 

The COVID pandemic was hard on all of us. In an effort to re-energize downtown Pittsburgh, the city worked with an artist named Janel Young to curate new artwork for downtown. “New Space Spheres” is “a project expressive of physical distancing and the new societal space we are in, bringing attention to the new normal of how we interact, experience, and define ‘safety’ with a colorful twist,” according to the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. I had two of my artworks there in downtown, my first time displaying my artwork in downtown!

Following “New Space Spheres,” there was an initiative by the city called “Welcoming Pittsburgh.”  They had different vendors from different countries displaying their wares, and I had one of the tents. I began to wonder what would happen if I drew a canvas of Pittsburgh bridges and asked people to each paint a brushstroke, making it a truly community effort.

One of the pieces of art I did for the “New Space Spheres” initiative. Photo: Provided.

I put out a sign-up sheet and had 154 people provide their email address, showing interest in joining me if I found the right wall – which I did. When I went to the store to get the canvas for this, I told the lady who worked there what I was planning and how excited I was.

She came to the event, bringing me lunch as a gift. Almost 200 people painted the mural, some of them not even from Pittsburgh but from different states! I included as many different types of people as possible, and it paid off. A group of ladies came to me. “We are atheists,” they said. “We always feel left out. Thank you for including us.”

I was so happy. It was an amazing three days of engagement, connection and building bridges with every walk of life. I encourage each of you to build bridges in your own communities. 

Sincerely,

Ebtehal Badawi 

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