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‘I never thought it would be a campaign’: Muslim artist’s work builds bridges in Pittsburgh

Ebtehal Badawi’s painting has been used to promote racial and religious unity across the city.

Artist Ebtehal Badawi poses with her

PITTSBURGH (RNS) — If you ever meet Ebtehal Badawi, chances are she will greet you with an energetic smile, a handshake and a blue poster with an image of a yellow bridge on it. The poster is part of Badawi’s vision for racial and religious unity, a vision she’s eagerly shared with gas station attendants, school principals, restaurant owners and “extras” on the set of a Jason Momoa movie — in other words, anyone and everyone she meets.

The poster, which also includes raised fists of different colors and various religious symbols, is central to Badawi’s Pittsburgh Builds Bridges campaign, an effort the artist launched in 2018. The campaign aims to promote healing and unity by featuring Badawi’s “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges” art piece in public spaces throughout the city.

Today, original versions of the “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges” piece — both canvasses and murals — are located at five schools in the city, a cafe, Penn State’s Greater Allegheny campus and soon, a nonprofit dedicated to refugee resettlement. Badawi’s poster of the painting is also sprawled across the city in countless libraries, coffee shops and other public places. The bridge is an especially meaningful symbol for Pittsburgh, which boasts 446 bridges.

“For me, it’s not just a painting,” said Badawi. “It’s bringing everyone together so they can feel they belong.”

Originally from Saudi Arabia, Badawi came to the U.S. 15 years ago to get a degree in industrial hygiene. After years of sidelining her love of art — a passion, she said, relatives dismissed as a hobby — Badawi enrolled in classes at the Milan Art Institute in Georgia and began working as an artist full time.

In 2018, her son endured racist comments while on a middle school hockey team. That same year, a Pittsburgh high school made headlines when a hijab-wearing Muslim student was severely assaulted by another student in the school bathroom. These incidents motivated Badawi to use her artistic skills to create the original “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges” painting.

"Pittsburgh Builds Bridges" by Ebtehal Badawi. RNS photo by Kathryn Post

“Pittsburgh Builds Bridges” by Ebtehal Badawi. RNS photo by Kathryn Post

“When I drew this, I didn’t know I wanted to paint it as a mural. I’ve never painted a mural in my life,” said Badawi. “I never thought it would be a campaign. My intention was to help kids in the community I’m in, because it’s not very diverse. That’s why I painted this. And then it started all coming together.”

Fewer than 1% of Pittsburgh residents are Muslim, with 78% identifying as Christian, according to 2014 Pew data.

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Daniel Como, principal at Pleasant Hills Middle School, was the first person to say “yes” to displaying Badawi’s “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges” piece in 2018.

“The message was simple,” said Como. “It related directly to Pittsburgh, with the bridge, and she took that symbol and applied it to all different cultures and faiths.”

Como said the school used the painting — which is displayed in poster format throughout the campus — as part of Pleasant Hills’ curriculum on dignity and respect.

Thank you notes written by students from an elementary school that artist Ebtehal Badawi visited. RNS photo by Kathryn Post

Thank-you notes written by students from an elementary school that artist Ebtehal Badawi visited. RNS photo by Kathryn Post

Today, Badawi is creating a “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges” mural at the headquarters of Hello Neighbor, a grassroots organization that supports refugees and immigrants resettling in Pittsburgh. The mural is expected to be completed by the end of September.

Sloane Davidson, founder and CEO of Hello Neighbor, said the mural was a “natural fit” for the organization, especially because of the way art transcends language barriers. “I think the mural so perfectly embodies this sense that you can create a feeling and an emotion without having to all speak the same language,” she said.

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For Badawi, the message of Pittsburgh Builds Bridges is inspired by her Muslim faith.

“In Islam, we are welcoming of all religions,” said Badawi. “And we’re taught that when we see someone in pain or hurting, we offer help. That’s what our prophet, peace be upon him, did.”

The “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges” piece showcases nine different religious symbols, including the symbol for atheism.

Badawi’s passion for building bridges goes beyond the scope of her art campaign. She is a member of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a national organization dedicated to promoting relationships and dialogue between Muslim and Jewish women. “While a lot of people see the conflict between Muslims and Jews in Palestine, that’s the politics, not the people,” said Badawi.

"Blooming Hope" artwork by Ebtehal Badawi, with Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and Janel Young. RNS photo by Kathryn Post

“Blooming Hope” artwork by Ebtehal Badawi, with Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and Janel Young. RNS photo by Kathryn Post

Badawi’s other art pieces — such as the mixed-media piece “Expressions” — also include themes of tolerance and unity and are on display throughout Pittsburgh as well as in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

After searching since 2019, Badawi recently secured a wall where she will paint an outdoor mural of “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges.” She hopes to bring together community members from across the city, and to make the mural painting a community event with local food and music.

“The reason these things happen, incidents of racism and bullying, is because people are afraid of people who are different,” said Badawi. “We need to accept those who are different, people who don’t look the same or share the same belief. We need to be open, to see the people in front of us.”

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