Ebtehal’s Bridges of Love

Written by Ebtehal Badawi and Elizabeth Rivas
Edited by Laura Gonzalez and Sheridan Block

My passion and love for art started at a very young age. After taking an art workshop class, I immediately connected with the craft. I was only in sixth grade when I wrote a note to myself manifesting my future: When I grow up, I want to go to art school.

That was my dream. But, like every art-related passion, everyone around me told me art could only be a hobby. And I listened. I decided to study science - the safer option - and got my bachelor’s degree in biology from King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia. Shortly after graduating, I got married and came to the United States via a joint scholarship from the Saudi Arabian government.

Still, I knew in my heart that art was what I wanted to pursue, and I tried to when I first arrived to the US. However, since my degree wasn’t in art, I had to abandon that idea. Instead, I got my master’s in industrial hygiene at West Virginia University.

Turning Point

A turning point in my life was when I tried to find a job in industrial hygiene. I am so glad I wasn’t able to find anything. I knew I had another calling and was certain it wasn’t to be an industrial hygienist!

Eight years ago, I started a self-loving journey. I took different self-development classes, healing, meditation, and ultimately, I went back to art. Through this process, I discovered art therapy. I wanted to get a second master’s in art therapy, but I was told there were prerequisites in art and psychology that I didn’t have. I was able to fulfill these prerequisites, andI’m still in the process of attaining a master’s in art therapy.

Vision Unraveled

A memorable event that inspired my vision was when my son came home upset from one of his hockey practices. He said he had gotten some racist remarks in the locker room. Thankfully, the other children apologized, but as a mother, it hurt that he had to go through that at all. That same year, I saw a video of a Syrian refugee getting beaten up at one of the high schools in Pittsburgh. I couldn’t comprehend how someone could videotape that instead of calling for help. After getting in touch with the mother of the victim, she informed me that the girl thankfully only got a concussion and was otherwise okay. However, she didn’t go back to school.

This dispute ended in a concussion, but how many kids go through this without anyone knowing, and ultimately end in a suicide?

I wanted to help people see that differences are characteristics we must embrace not use to tear apart each other apart.

With the intention of bringing people together, I started sketching hands of different skin tones, and on top of each hand, varying belief symbols, including atheism. I told the counselor at the school in which I was working as a teacher assistant, Universal Academy of Pittsburgh, that I wanted to incorporate something that represented Pittsburg. Bridges. From then, a new idea was born.

I took this sketch to my son’s school and told the principal that if we were to display this in the school, it would help students find a sense of belonging. He was the first person to say yes. From there, I started to reach out to other places to display my art.

Ebtehal collecting brushstrokes and building bridges. (Photo courtesy Ebtehal Badawi)

Building Bridges

At first, everything was challenging because it was all new and different. I started praying to God, consulting with him about whether this was the path for me. During one of those moments of trials and questions, a friend called me and told me her son was in the middle of a panic attack in the cafeteria when he saw the painting and was able to calm down, feeling like he belonged. That was the only answer I needed. However, I didn’t want to stop there. I wanted to display these bridges of love at different schools in Pittsburgh. I also wanted to find a wall and paint a mural in downtown Pittsburgh and with different kids and people, even players from the Penguins, the Steelers, and the Pirates.

Even if we look different, even if we have different beliefs, even if we root for different players or like different sports, we can still come together to plant seeds of love and acceptance, and build bridges in our kids’ hearts and in our hearts.

While trying to search for this mural that would embody unison and harmony, I found many walls. I started talking to everyone: people at open houses, doctors’ appointments, at the grocery store, at gas stations, etc. I would ask everyone about good locations. I would send emails, make phone calls, and go to different events in search of this wall.

My first opportunity was given in a Turkish restaurant. I was talking to the owner about my vision, and he agreed to give me a wall in one of his restaurants. In January of 2020, the first indoor mural was created.

The second mural was in Arsenal Middle School. I got to paint with fifth and sixth graders. Everyone did a brushstroke and afterward, I asked them: How do you build bridges between people?

I was aiming to create this ripple effect of building bridges. After a series of calls, I was given permission to paint in all the schools in the Thomas Jefferson District. The whole school participated in the creation of these murals, students as well as teachers.

Last year, the city of Pittsburgh joined with Pittsburgh Downtown Partnerships to host an event called World Square, where different cultures and ethnicities are celebrated. At the event, I was one of the vendors, as I had come to display my art. It occurred to me that I could get people to add a brushstroke to the canvas. This would then give me an opportunity to ask them if they would be willing to join me in painting if I were to find another wall. That day, 200 people painted and 154 people signed their email. I was happy about that accomplishment in itself. I remember a group of ladies approached me and told me they always felt left out, but in these canvases, they were being represented.

I got to paint at Carlow University in Pittsburgh with the staff and students. I also had the opportunity to paint in Campus Laboratory School, a branch of Carlow University that ranges from K-8. I painted the school with all these children, from kindergarten to eighth grade. Just like before, I would ask them after every brushstroke: How do you build bridges? At first, they didn’t understand the question and would answer things like “steel.” After explaining that the answer refers to how one makes friends, their answers came flooding in: love, kissing, hugging, etc. All valid answers. I would also try to open discussions regarding see something, say something, just to bring awareness to the issue. It brings me joy that to this day, kids can walk the halls of their school and see these bridges in the walls and understand that they are part of its creation.

I had the opportunity to paint in many other places, like Pittsburgh University, Point Park University, and Penn State University.

Carnegie Mellon University reached out to me and asked me to paint in celebration of Martin Luther King’s day. Since the presentation was to be done virtually, students would have small canvases where they could paint. It occurred to me that I could create a puzzle with this. I got smaller canvases, put them together, drew them as a puzzle, and numbered them. Each student took a piece and painted them. At the Interfaith Breakfast, they displayed the entirety of the canvas.

This one time I received a ticket for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds soccer game. I went to the game with my small canvas, knowing absolutely no one, in the hopes of getting the players to add a brushstroke at the end of the game. I was able to attain a brushstroke from most of the players, and this became the canvas I take everywhere, asking everyone for a brushstroke. After it’s done, I’m going to auction it and raise money for homeless children’s education funds.

Players from the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC adding brush strokes to the Bridges canvas. (Photo Courtesy Ebtehal Badawi)

This past March, during Women’s Month, I wanted to get a brushstroke from every player in the USA versus Canada during the female hockey Olympics. I reached out to them but got no response. So, I did the next best thing and went there with a canvas in hand. I was able to easily get a brushstroke from the USA team, but it was a bit trickier with the Canadian team. I was met with denial after denial trying to get the Canadian team to paint, but I still didn’t want to give up. People didn’t think I could actually make it, but I wanted to take my chances, and my chances I took! I stood on top of a chair in the glass where the players come out, held the canvas high, and screamed: “This is the bridge between USA and Canada. Will you paint to bring us together?” In the end, I got 2 Canadian players, but that was more than enough. I take this canvas to different events and tell people this story and proceed to ask them: how do you build bridges?

Present

After four years, I finally found a wall in Downtown Pittsburgh. I went to the director of the City Council of Pittsburgh and told her I wanted to have a day on the calendar. I want to call it Building Bridges Day. On this day, everyone would celebrate building bridges in their own way. She thought it was a great idea and suggested closing one of the bridges and celebrating it there. Since the bridge is owned by the county, I sent the proposal to the county. When I went there, they told me that most of these proposals get denied. To avoid that, I spoke with different council members to get their support in getting this approval. Sadly, I wasn’t able to gain their approval. But, if I have learned anything these past few years, it’s to never give up. Things will start looking up, I’m sure. And though I’m focused on Pittsburgh right now, my vision goes beyond it. I want to go to different states and even countries and paint with different kids. I want to paint together with everyone to continue building these bridges and sharing and hearing people’s stories.

Now let me ask:

How do YOU build bridges?

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