‘They’re still human beings:’ Milwaukee mother on a mission to combat fatal drug overdose stigma with the Purple Chair Project

NOW: ‘They’re still human beings:’ Milwaukee mother on a mission to combat fatal drug overdose stigma with the Purple Chair Project

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- On any given day, there’s a pretty good chance that you can find Sumia Masoud in her backyard with a can of purple spray paint in her hand.

“You gotta cover all the angles because I don’t know how they’re going to be displaying it,” Masoud explains as she quickly coats a small wooden chair.

Dozens more of various sizes surround the Milwaukee mother and grandmother, as she deftly glues golden angel wings to the front of the current piece of purple furniture she’s working on.

Since last August, Masoud has made nearly 140 of them, frequenting local thrift shops and garage sales to find wooden or metal chairs.

"I try wherever I can because it’s a one-woman thing,” Masoud told CBS 58’s Ellie Nakamoto-White.

And no, she doesn’t keep all of them. Rather, they are given out for free to people in the area or as far away as Arizona.

“The purple represents the color of drug overdose, fentanyl, etc.,” Masoud said. “The empty chair is the person that you’re missing.”

The idea came from a post she saw on social media about the Purple Chair Project.

“I just want to see a flood of purple chairs because I want awareness out there,” Masoud said. “It’s not just drug addicts. It’s not just socioeconomic issues. It’s an epidemic and that’s the purpose for me of the Purple Chair Project is to get people saying, hey, what’s that purple chair for?”

Masoud’s personal desire to break down the stigma started about two years ago.

“He was a soft gentle soul,” Masoud said. “We called him Ashi.”

Her son, Ashuriah, was a proud history buff and Bucks fan. But through the years, he also faced several battles.

“He was somebody who never felt that he fit in,” Masoud said.

That feeling only increased after his parent’s divorced when he was seven.

“We moved to Wisconsin, he didn’t have his people, he didn’t have his community around him and he always searched for that,” Masoud said.

In high school, the problems only worsened.

“I had no clue really, of the depth of what he was into until it became extremely painfully obvious,” Masoud said.

When Ashi was in his mid-twenties, she recalled that her bright light in her life had turned dark.

“He had kind of hit rock bottom back in October of 2021, he was living in Chicago so I went to Chicago,” Masoud said. “I brought him home and he just said I don’t know why, I don’t know why, that’s all he kept saying.”

Ashi spent several weeks detoxing from his drug intakes on his mom’s living room floor.

During his recovery, he ended up making amends and becoming overall healthier — enough to go back to work.

“He was finally the son that I longed for,” Masoud said.

It was going so well that Ashi even landed a job promotion.

“He had all these twenties spread out in his hand and he’s like Mom look, I’m a baller!” Masoud recalled. “I’m like, you’re not a baller bro, those are twenties, those aren’t hundreds and we kind of laughed and joked about it. He had gotten paid the night before.”

After that conversation, Ashi headed into his room.

“About 15, 20 minutes later, I heard the cat was meowing like crazy,” Masoud said.

She eventually found the pet in her son’s room.

“I opened the door and I told him, why are you letting this cat meow like this? You don’t hear him? And my son was at the edge of his bed with his head down on the mattress and I thought he was asleep,” Masoud said. “He still had all those twenties spread out in his hand like he walked away from me and went into his room and passed.”

Ashuriah died from a fentanyl overdose just three weeks before his 29th birthday.

“So many people are suffering from this,” Masoud said.

In her home are several tributes to her son, including a stuffed teddy bear made from his favorite jacket and a blanket made of his shirts.

“It makes me feel that he’s here with us somehow,” Masoud said. “It just makes me sad that this had to become such a big part of my life, really.”

Masoud said she hopes that when people see a purple chair, they’ll realize it’s an “illness that needs to be addressed in this country.”

“It does make me cry, not only for myself but for the people that have had to place those chairs out there,” Masoud said. “Stop viewing these people as junkies, as no loss to society. They were somebody’s brother, somebody’s son, daughter, sister, mother, whatever. They were still human beings.”

If you or someone you know is in need of a purple chair, you can contact Masoud through the Milwaukee Purple Chair Project’s Facebook page

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