In Their Words

In January 2017, I traveled to Athens and Lesbos to hear the stories and capture the images of people we call refugees. The word “refugee” is just a label; it’s not who they are. They didn’t choose to leave their countries; they had to, because of war or the political situation. Nobody chooses to go through hell unless the alternative is even worse. The people I met were no different from me or my brother or my family. They were some of the strongest, bravest, smartest, kindest, and most generous and inspirational people that I have ever had the pleasure of meeting and talking to and joking with and sharing meals with. They welcomed me into their homes and families. They shared everything when they had nothing to share.

This is my attempt to introduce some of these people to you; to share an aspect of their story so we don’t see them as “foreign” or as a “refugee.” They are mothers and fathers, boys and girls and babies, soccer players, musicians, interior designers, and engineers. I especially loved spending time with the children; they would all want their photos taken, and surround me to see how I captured them in my camera. They would strike cool poses and smile like they didn’t have a care in the world. I was with them on New Year’s day and asked them their wishes for 2017. One said he wanted to be able to go to the shops and buy whatever he wanted, many said they wanted to go to Germany, and some didn’t say anything.

It is their stories that I think we need to hear, especially now.

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Mustafa is one and a half years old; he was only a few months old when he left Syria with his mother. She trekked from Syria to Turkey through forests and mountains in the rain for five days, gripping Mustafa with one hand, and climbing with the other. Each time she would near the top, she would slip. They now live in a “squat,” an abandoned school building in Athens, in one corner of a room cordoned off with sheets. Mustafa was sick with a cold when we met him. His mother doesn’t let him out of her sight; she doesn’t want him to play with the other kids because she’s worried he’ll get even sicker or catch a disease. His favorite character is Mowgli from The Jungle Book, and he loves playing with cars. His mother, Rafah, made a makeshift swing for him, doubling a rope with one end tied to the windowsill and the other to a door hinge. She throws a quilt over it and swings Mustafa, and for a few minutes he smiles and giggles.

A young boy smiling through the barred window of his “caravan,” a container shared by eight people that is his home now, in Skaramangas camp outside Athens. It’s estimated that there are almost thirty million children who are refugees.

His name is Awan. It means “somebody.”

Muhammad used to be an interior designer in Syria. “I very, very like decoration,” he tells me several times. He can’t wait to do this work again. For ten months, he’s been in Greece, first living in a camp, and when we met him he was in an apartment with his wife and two young kids. He loves to play the tambor. A friend bought one for him in Athens. He played a song for us—a sad song. I asked him if I could take his portrait. He said “yes, no problem, but no show my teeth.”

The kids at the refugee camps don’t have much to play with, but they run around, make up games, and have fun with each other, without regard for any language barriers that may exist. They loved posing for photos, especially the boys; they would come up to me and ask for their pictures to be taken, and pose with peace signs or silly faces or cool expressions.

Every time we sat down with a family to hear their stories, in small containers or bare apartments, the first thing, we would be offered something to eat or drink. It wasn’t really an offer; it was a given. Those who had nothing would give everything.

Yet another from a collection of photos of boys calling each other Ronaldo or Messi or Suarez and striking poses accordingly.

Skaramangas camp is on the water. The setting is beautiful—crystal blue water and snow-capped mountains in the distance. But a few feet from the water’s edge there are four thousand refugees, who have fled for their lives and left everything behind with no clear sign for their future, living in containers and trying each day to survive.

At the camp, some people have opened up small businesses. These two boys, in their black hoodies, are waiting for their shwarmas and fries.

When we met this little boy, in Lesbos, at a camp for the most vulnerable, his family was taking out everything from inside their tent and dumping it outside. They did this because there were rats inside, and they would get in the mattresses where the kids slept.

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Artist Saanya Ali sat down with GAF Publicity Manager Carly Valentine to discuss the experience of visiting two refugee camps in Greece. “In Their Words,” which includes interviews, video footage, and sculpture in addition to photographs.

What was the inspiration for “In Their Words”?

I was in Rome for Christmas with my family, and I knew the refugee crisis was happening, but it kind of pissed me off that the media was getting preoccupied with other things and this was still going on. I saw a video that Milana Vayntrub posted, where she went to the camps and said, “This is what I can do, I can tell stories and I have a platform to tell stories.” There is also a film called Refuge that just premiered at SXSW so I had seen a clip of that online. After that, I decided to leave Rome and go to Greece, and I began the trip two days later.

How do you think about the experience now, a few months later?

I came back the day before spring semester started . . . I never have weekends because I’m always working, and I haven’t had a chance to actually think about everything. People ask me “Oh! How was it?” I am kind of at a loss for words so I’m trying to figure it out now as we speak, I guess.

Do you have particular goals for the project?

I’m still in school, so I couldn’t just go and move to the camps and work there; that’s not feasible for me. But I am a photographer and a filmmaker and a storyteller in many different ways, and in that way, I can reignite some attention to the issue because the refugee crisis is just being forgotten and people are just getting bored of hearing about it. My goal is to remind whomever I reach of humanity and the reality of the people behind the statistics. These people aren’t numbers; they have names and families. People’s conception of refugees is that they are poor and need help, but the reality is that these people are lawyers, chemical engineers, and doctors.