Teen's art exhibit highlights nonprofit for Afghanistan


At 17, Hirmand Azimi fled violence in Afghanistan and moved from country to country as a refugee. That painful ordeal has informed his life in Philadelphia, and also fueled his activism.

A 2023 graduate of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy (SCH), Azimi not only helped start the Heela Foundation, a nonprofit that aids orphans in Kabul, but he has partnered with the group to organize an art exhibit that brings attention to the plight of Afghan children and families.

The exhibit at SCH's Barbara Crawford Gallery showcases artwork by Kabul-based artist Ghulam Nabi, portraits by photographer Massoud Etemadi and photos by the Shamsa Children's Village youths, taken as part of their art therapy program. The Shamsa Village in Kabul unites and supports single mothers with orphaned and abandoned children. All proceeds from the sale of these artworks will go to the orphanage. The exhibit continues through Aug. 4,

Following is an interview with Azimi, whose father remains in Afghanistan:

  • What was your life like in Afghanistan?

“Despite the circumstances in Afghanistan with the decades of war and political instability, my life was excellent and adventurous. As a child, my parents, particularly my mother, invested a lot of time in taking care of me and shielding me from the issues in the country. I remember every minute in detail while living in Afghanistan as a child: the cool summer breeze you could taste and savor, sitting down on our porch viewing my mother's vibrant garden, sipping milk tea, laughing and telling stories with family and friends. I remember times I spent with my cousins, swimming, biking and going on picnics.”

  • What month and year did you leave?

“I lived there between 2011 and 2014, when the last few months of my life in Kabul were cut short due to increased violence and instability, which prompted my mother and me to move to the U.S. and then India and Italy.”

  • What was it like to leave the way you did?

“The longest period of leaving Afghanistan and my father was in 2020, when the U.S. was beginning its withdrawal of troops, and insurgency surged … I did not realize that would be the last time I would hug and say goodbye to my father for two painfully long years. COVID and the war had put a halt on our visit back to my father, and the increased violence had made us fear for his life in Kabul. He is still stuck in Kabul.”

  • Do you have any siblings? If so, were they also able to leave?

“I have three half-siblings who have lived in Pakistan their entire lives and six adopted siblings who live in Kabul, waiting for their visas to be approved to leave the country. They could not flee the country due to visa issues.”

  • How were you able to travel to so many countries in your young life?

“My mother took on jobs from news agencies to diplomatic positions from Prague to New Delhi and Rome. My parents decided it would be best for me to travel with her so I could be enrolled in better schools abroad than in Kabul.”

  • How did you happen to wind up in the Philadelphia area?

“My uncle, Sultan Malikyar, who owns Chestnut Hill Coffee Company on Germantown Avenue, was the main reason for us moving my widowed grandmother, Rahella Adamec, from Tucson, Arizona, where she was isolated from the family, to Philadelphia. During our moving process, my mother and I lived in Tucson for a year, where I finished 10th grade. I was preparing to reunite with my father again after settling my grandma in Philly when the Taliban takeover happened, and we had no choice but to remain in Philly.”

  • Have people here been helpful to you and your mom?

“Springside Chestnut Hill Academy and the people in Chestnut Hill have been nothing but helpful and warm to us. I have been given an opportunity to attend a prestigious and academically rewarding school like SCH, while easily befriending the welcoming people here.”

  • How were you able to get into SCH?

“Dr. Maria Aini (associate professor of emergency medicine at Thomas Jefferson University) and Ms. Katy Friedland are the main reasons why I have been able to attend this school and receive a high-quality education and experience. I owe so much to them for their efforts in helping with my admissions process to SCH.”

  • How were you able to start the Heela Foundation?

“The Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership program (CEL), led by Mr. Edward Glassman at SCH, helped with funding the Heela Foundation. They have been monumental in helping us grow and prepare for this art gallery benefit.”

  • Since the Taliban are in control, how do you know that the money raised will really go to the Shamsa Orphanage?

“The Taliban do not interfere with private orphanages and have plenty of other issues to deal with in the country. Shamsa Children's Village is a trusted and incredible orphanage that has an excellent reputation.”

  • Do you hope to return to Afghanistan to live someday?

“With the opportunities and guidance given to me by mentors, teachers and loved ones, I hope to fulfill my academic goals, gain life and work experience and become a qualified expert in political science and diplomacy to one day return to Afghanistan and hopefully work and live there.”

To schedule a visit to the exhibit, call 215-247-4700. Donations to Heela Foundation are accepted at sch.org/heela or Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com