The faces of an elderly Muslim couple whose family was murdered during the Kosovo War stare out of a watercolor painting by Shelia Earl of Fresno.
“We were in this village where the Kosovo War had actually been recognized as ethnic cleansing,” Earl recalls of an experience doing Christian mission work in Kosovo in 1999, “and this man was the first man that we met at the school and was standing outside. … He said, ‘I lost all of my family – three sons, daughters-in-law, all my grandchildren except one grandson, and he’s in the United States in a university.’ ”
They’re survivors. They have survived everything, and yet they still find joy in the simple things.
Earl, also a photographer, took a photo of the man and his wife and mailed it to their grandson in the U.S. It was the only news he received that some of his family had survived.
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Earl painted the elderly couple for a Ramadan Art Contest through the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno. The contest helps celebrate Ramadan, Islam’s holy month, which begins the evening of June 5.
Earl and her husband, Arville, spent 20 years doing mission work in Eastern Europe through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. They reunited families split up in refugee camps and rebuilt homes and villages after the war.
Shelia Earl’s participation in the Ramadan Art Contest is further testimony to her commitment to interfaith work.
She recently defended some of her friends at the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno from a man who told her Muslims are “our enemy.”
After telling the man about what good people her friends are, the man responded, “That’s not how most of them are.”
“I said, ‘That is how most of them are.’ ” Earl recalls. “You only hear the horror stories that people want you to hear.”
You have to open yourself up and not close yourself off. I see that there is hope if that can be done.
Through her painting of the elderly Muslim couple, she’s telling another story.
“I have never met a Muslim person, personally, that was not the most hospitable,” she says. “They will give you their last piece of bread, if that’s all they have to offer.”
Earl wants people to get to know their Muslim neighbors.
“If we’re willing to learn, if we’re teachable, if we are willing to listen instead of always give our opinion, and understand and empathize – that’s going to be the key. And you can’t do that if you don’t know anybody. If you don’t know a Muslim, you’re not going to know what they’re like.”
Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, and Lilia Chavez, a judge for this year’s contest and executive director for the Fresno Arts Council, hope the Ramadan Art Contest helps with that education.
It will serve as a tool to help bring our community together.
Lilia Chavez, a judge for the Ramadan Art Contest
“We live in challenging times,” Chavez says, “and I think anything we can do to help us achieve a greater understanding of someone else’s beliefs and ideas is huge and can help make us a better community.”
Earl says fear keeps people from that understanding. “It’s fear that drives the whole thing. And politicians love to instill fear in people. Everywhere we’ve been, that’s exactly the tool they use to turn people against people.”
Earl encourages “opening up” to people of different faiths and cultures.
“I see that there is hope if that can be done. If we can bring more and more people to the point that they know each other, then all those fears go away.”
How to participate in the Ramadan Art Contest
- Art should portray Prophet Muhammad’s teachings about honoring elders.
- Deliver art to the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, 2111 E. Nees Ave., by Wednesday, June 1.
- Winners receive plaque and money ($1,500 for age 18 and older, $500 for children 12 to 17).
- Submission must be on 16-inch-by-20-inch to 24-inch-by-36-inch paper, canvas or other material.
- Do not include nudity, vulgarity or anything disrespectful to any group.
- Include this statement in art or on a label: “Respect your elders!” – Prophet Muhammad.
- For more information, call 559-297-9535 or email email@example.com.