Intercultural understanding has always been a topic of high importance on campus — as evidenced most recently by contention over anti-Islam drawings in the Diag. Hafsa Ghias, an LSA freshman, wants to change that.

“The idea behind this project is to use art and creative expression as a way to reach out to people and evoke emotion,” Ghias said of her creation, The Peace Initiative.

The Peace Initiative is a project whose purpose is to promote understanding between cultures through artwork, specifically in regard to dialogue between Muslims and some of the larger groups within the nation, a cause which is very personal for Ghias.

“My parents are Pakistani, but I was born and raised here, so I always see myself as a blend of both Pakistani and American … that’s played a huge role in my life,” Ghias said.

Her experience of growing up as a Muslim in Michigan has played an important role in her motivation to start The Peace Initiative, but she also is driven by her passion for art.

“I’ve always been an artist, that’s been a huge part of my life,” Ghias said.  “And growing up wearing the hijab, I did get a lot of negative comments … so the way that I expressed myself is by creating art.”

The origins of the project started in Ghias’s senior year of high school. Prompted by what she saw as a greater number of Islamophobic events happening around the world, dehumanizing coverage in the media, a feeling of frustration and the desire to do something, she started working on an art portfolio for herself.

“(The portfolio was meant) to creatively show that Muslims were just normal people,” Ghias said. “We have all the same dreams, passions — we want to be successful, we want to have a family — all that.”

Ghias’s personal art portfolio expanded this semester into a larger scale project after an encounter with the co-founder of optiMize, a social entrepreneurship club at the University.

“(optiMize) holds a social innovation challenge every year,” Ghias said. “And basically what you can do is you can apply to this challenge with an idea to change the world, and they give you the tools to expand on your project.”

Ghias’s organization was able to receive financial support from optiMize, and she and her four co-founders will be giving a presentation about The Peace Initiative at optiMize’s showcase on April 13. Though the project is not yet complete, Ghias intends for there to eventually be a showcase of all the artwork created for it.

In addition to working with optiMize, Ghias intends for The Peace Initiative to collaborate with other social justice organizations around campus.

“We’ve reached out to groups like Lean In, the Muslim Students’ Association and Hip Hop Congress,” she said. “And we want to reach out more to ethnic and religious groups as well, specific groups that work with social justice issues, and work with them to use art as a medium to release information.”

Ultimately, Ghias wants to use art as a means to open up discussion in that same way, to promote peace and to help create a world that is more open, just and understanding.

“I want to use art as a way to be that pushing point where people are comfortable to ask questions in a positive way, to reach out to other people,” Ghias said. “If we can use art to make people feel empathy, or make people feel anything honestly, it will help to overcome the issues we have today.”

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