Controversial conversation continues due to cultural art

Taylor Rocca, Copy/Web Editor Ω

Composed by fromer TRU fine arts student Sooraya Graham, this piece of art has impacted the artist and the Muslim community in more ways than one. - IMAGE COURTESY SOORAYA GRAHAM

Composed by fromer TRU fine arts student Sooraya Graham, this piece of art has impacted the artist and the Muslim community in more ways than one. – IMAGE COURTESY SOORAYA GRAHAM

Unfamiliar pill bottles have become all too familiar to Sooraya Graham. Anti-depressants and anxiety medication have found a home in her life where they were previously unwelcome and unneeded.

Graham sits at home, wondering what she ever did to deserve such a fate.

Kamloops, the city she once called home, is now just a memory. While Graham wishes it were a more distant one, this memory remains very much at the forefront of her life. Living more than 800 kilometres from Kamloops is enough to remind her on a daily basis. Citing safety reasons, Graham requested her specific location not be revealed.

Apart from being uprooted and reliant on medications just to get by, Graham is also slowly giving up her religion, that until the past year, was an integral part of her.

All of this is a direct result of one innocent but provocative piece of artwork.

In March 2012¸Graham went through one of the most trying experiences any budding artist can experience.

Graham — a Canadian Muslim — was, at the time, a fourth-year fine arts student at Thompson Rivers University (TRU).

After composing a breath-taking photograph intended to foster a societal discussion about women — particularly Muslim women and the niqab, or face veil — Graham put her artwork on display as part of a class project for TRU fine arts professor Ernie Kroeger.

“I was trying to create a discussion point for Muslim women, for veiled women and to kind of just show light of how we are just normal women,” Graham said in a March 2012 interview in The Omega.

The reaction that followed was beyond anything she had ever imagined.

According to Graham, her artwork was stripped down from its display and taken away by then TRU World international student advisor, Sahar Alnakeb.

“They weren’t willing to give it to me if I was going to put it back on the wall,” Graham said in March 2012. “They were holding it hostage, I guess you could say.

“We’re  always told that our voice is important and that we can say something with our art. It is shocking when someone tries to silence that.”

Alnakeb, also a female Muslim, left her business card on the wall in place of Graham’s work. She would eventually return the work to Graham, after which it would was put back on display. TRU also compensated Graham for damage to the piece.

Alnakeb would issue an apology to Graham via email.

“As an International Student Advisor I do apologize for removing your picture, at that time I was aiming to support my female Muslim students who have found it offensive [to] students but now I see it was a mistake. Sorry for the inconvenience,” was all that Alnakeb wrote to Graham on Wednesday, April 11, 2012.

The two never met in person after the incident.

Alnakeb refused to comment when approached for the purposes of this story.

While it might have been the end, it was only the beginning of the Sooraya Graham story.

A media frenzy would follow, with CBC and Huffington Post just two of the media outlets bringing national and international attention to the story.

“You know, that 15 minutes of fame, I wanted it to be literally 15 minutes and done,” Graham said. “I wanted the injustice to be solved because when Sahar did that, she pushed so many boundaries.”

After the story quieted down within the media, things did not follow suit in Graham’s life. She received death threats via email, hate messages were stuck on her car windshield and the front door to her home, the tail light on her car was broken and she was followed around campus by other Muslim students who disapproved of her art. She wasn’t comfortable going to, from or within school without travelling in a group.

“I didn’t feel safe on campus. I went to a counsellor and told her about it and I was stressed,” Graham said. “I tried to express it. But at the same time, I had no proof. They just said, ‘Oh, you’re just being paranoid.'”

According to Graham, she relayed these concerns to Doug Buis, fine arts advisor, as well as Duane Seibel, director of judicial and student affairs.

Buis was unavailable for comment. Seibel maintains Graham never presented these concerns to him.

“The office of judicial and student affairs has been in touch with Ms. Graham as recently as January 21 in preparation for the release of documents as part [of] the freedom of information request made by The Omega,” said Christopher Seguin, vice president advancement.

It wasn’t only on campus and online where the issue confronted Graham. She recalled an incident in Sahali Mall, where she said she was minding her own business picking up groceries and was confronted by a man who yelled at her in the middle of the grocery store.

Eventually, Graham’s parents would convince her to pick up and leave TRU and Kamloops. Not only was she leaving behind her city and her university, she was leaving behind four years of studies towards her fine arts degree, which she has still been unable to complete. Now she doesn’t even know if she wants to finish her degree and has come to the conclusion that she certainly does not want to pursue a career as an artist, as she once did.

“In our discussion, Ms. Graham had mentioned that she moved [to a new location] and that things had become uncomfortable for her in Kamloops but there was no mention of safety concerns,” Seguin said. “If Ms. Graham spoke to a faculty or other staff member, it was not brought to the attention of staff in student affairs, as we would have taken any safety concerns very seriously. It was our understanding that the decision to move related to other unrelated issues.”

Things did not improve upon leaving Kamloops.

“When I first moved here, I didn’t leave my house for the first 13 weeks,” Graham said.

“I’ve gone to mental health tons of times. I’m on antidepressants, which I’ve never been on. I have to take anxiety pills. It’s just over that one thing. It’s pretty messed up.”

As a direct result of the incident, Graham has found herself slowly losing touch with her religion, something that was once so important to her. She is no longer allowed to travel to places in the Muslim world like Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Dubai due to the danger she faces after her artwork and story circulated the international Muslim community.

“As a Muslim, what do I do about Mecca?  That’s gone for me now. Permanently,” Graham said. “It’s an R.E.M. song. I’m losing my religion. It’s changed me. At this time, maybe it’s a good thing.”

As for Sahar Alnakeb, she is no longer at TRU World, though no one in TRU administration was willing to confirm where she is or what she is doing.

“The employee has since left TRU,” Seguin wrote via email. “Due to personal privacy issues, I can’t comment further.”

“As I was not on campus during this time, I am not able to add anything further,” Diana Skoglund, TRU’s media and communications coordinator, wrote via email. “I really do not know who the staff member was.”

A freedom of information request was submitted to TRU on October 22, 2012, requesting any and all information and internal email communication relating to this incident. It was received February 4, 2013, much of it censored out.

Content contained within the freedom of information request would indicate that Skoglund was in fact aware of the situation as she sent and received emails found within the document.

According to Adrian Conradi, associate director of international student services and study abroad, Alnakeb left TRU World of her own will, though he does not believe the decision was tied to the altercation with Graham.

Sultan Almajil, an international student advisor at TRU World and former colleague of Alnakeb, confirmed she has returned to Ottawa, where her family resides and where she was originally from.

Alnakeb’s profile on the professional networking site LinkedIn indicates she is working as the managing director at Quick Application Services, a visa application service and Canadian university application service for people looking to come to Canada from abroad.

According to Graham, no one from the university ever followed up with her after it seemed the situation had calmed. As far as the university was concerned, the issue had been dealt with and not a soul was harmed as a result of it all. Things were kept so quiet, that not even Graham’s professor, Ernie Kroeger, knew she had fled Kamloops as a result.

Conradi, who was a key liaison in the resolution of this situation, was unaware Graham had felt unsafe and run off of TRU campus when asked about Graham.

“I believe there was lots of support and I am dismayed to hear she felt she had to leave campus as a result of this,” Conradi said. “All students should feel safe on campus and we have a lot of things in place to ensure they do.

“I would encourage her to get back to class and continue the provocative art she was pursuing before.”

While TRU states it has addressed the problem and implemented learning opportunities for staff and students, Graham is not and feels she cannot be in Kamloops to experience that.

“TRU World views this as a learning opportunity for all and has since implemented reflective discussion sessions on cultural sensitivities as well as additional training for all ISAP team members,” Seguin wrote via email. “Training content [is] focused on: Canadian charter of freedom and rights, working in Canadian post-secondary environment, academic freedom, inappropriate behaviours in [an] academic environment.

“TRU World continues to offer more cultural sensitivity training for TRU faculty, staff and students.”

Despite all the stress, all the adversity and all the change that has come to Sooraya Graham’s life as a result of one simple photograph, she tries to maintain a positive outlook on her life.

“My relationship with my boyfriend has kind of come from a weird place from that,” Graham said. “It’s kind of where it started — in an art gallery talking about it. So silver linings I try to find amongst the harshness.”

Sooraya Graham won’t ever be the same person she once was before she took that famous photograph back in 2012. She likely won’t ever return to TRU or Kamloops. She might completely give up her spiritual beliefs. Yet with all of this considered, she still maintains a positive outlook and ability to find the silver linings amongst all the harshness.

More importantly, she taught the whole world just how powerful art can truly be.

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