Afghan sisters seeking asylum assisted by Wilton couple

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WILTON — Fleeing arranged marriages in their homeland, two sisters from Afghanistan are living here temporarily while waiting to be granted asylum so they can continue their studies.

Masooma Habibullah, 25, and Mahbooba Habibullah, 21, said they want more from life than a marriage arranged by family members. So they left everything, including family, to continue their work and studies.

They arrived in the United States last October and found shelter with other Afghans in Albany, N.Y. They are unable to work or get help from the government until asylum is granted, they said.

The sisters were befriended by David Olson and Paula Widmer of Wilton via the Internet, when the couple hosted a high school exchange student from Afghanistan last year.

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Widmer suggested they work with fabric to help them through the emotional changes, so the sisters immediately borrowed 21 books from a library and taught themselves techniques to mostly hand-sew quilts, hangings, cushions and collectibles.

“Their art pieces are a fusion of ancient, richly-colored Afghan designs and techniques, and familiar American folk designs,” Widmer said.

The Wilton Free Public Library will host an exhibit of their work titled Along the Silk Road starting at 6 p.m. March 8. The sisters will provide home-cooked Afghan refreshments and have pieces of their work available for a donation. The exhibit continues through March 16.

The women’s fingers are used to handwork. Born and raised as refugees in Iran, they and their siblings started working at the age of 6, helping their mother weave carpets, Masooma said.

She eventually earned a high school education in Iran, but was not allowed to go to a university because she was a refugee.

Mahbooba got her secondary education at home. She wants to study and eventually write about her experiences, she said.

A few years ago, the family moved to Afghanistan, where Masooma completed a business management program sponsored by Goldman Sachs at American University. She eventually started her own electrical engineering company at age 23. she also attended the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship for Muslim countries in 2009 in Washington, D.C., and met President Obama, she said.

Last year, when the prospect of an arranged marriage developed — it often means a servant’s life in the home of the husband’s family — the sisters fled to the United States, and now are being hosted in Wilton.

Widmer and Olson said for them it’s a matter of developing diplomacy and peace. The couple recruits host families through Youth Exchange and Study, which promotes diplomacy between individuals, Widmer said.

“We both like young people and have served as mentors for years. It’s something we can do,” Olson said. “We’re creating bridges for peace.”

abryant@sunjournal.com

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