ICRC exhibition a powerful narrative of men as victims of war

Sunday 01/05/2016

Beirut - Each had a different story to tell about the dramatic events that shattered his life but the cause was al­ways the same: War. Men — Portraits of a Journey, an inter­active multimedia photo exhibi­tion organised by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Beirut, provides insight into the lives of six men and a boy who had to make difficult choices to survive conflict.
Geyath Qana’a, the musician who fled his home in Aleppo; Walid, the Syrian refugee shoe­shine boy who yearns to go back to school; and Mohamad Safwan, a Lebanese who lost nine members of his family at sea, are among the people profiled. Each tells his story in a 4-minute audio recording that one can listen to while scrutinis­ing their black-and-white photos, before and after the tragic turning point in their lives.
“I had my own home that I turned into an art residence. In July 2012, incidents took place in Aleppo. I was trapped for a week in a shed,” Qana’a said in his nar­rative. “I tried eight times to return to my house — and I failed.
“I was exposed to very bad situ­ations, including arrest. In deten­tion, you are exposed to the worst things you can imagine, unimagi­nable things. After my release, I decided to leave.”
He has since moved to an un­stable life in Lebanon, where he said he is now living. “I will travel to another place but I will not go back (to Syria), even if everything is well,” Qana’a said.
Walid, 12, is bitter about being deprived of an education since his family fled to Lebanon three years ago. “When I see kids study­ing I become regretful, because I remember the days of my study­ing,” he said. “I would like to go to school so my life does not go to waste. People will make fun of me if I do this kind of work. I work to help my father, my brothers and sisters because we have no more money.”
For Safwan, things happened overnight. Out of the 12 members of his family who tried to reach Eu­rope with the hordes of migrants, only three survived when their boat capsized off the Turkish coast. “Everything happened quickly. I mean my father made his plans (to migrate) in a week. It was a huge shock. To lose a mother, father, sis­ter and nephews… No human can bear that,” said the 29-year-old.
“We used to go to the Orontes river for lunch and prepared for the trip three or four days before. My sister and her kids were with us. They are all gone now. The sea has become my enemy.”
The purpose of the exhibition, which also features stories of Pal­estinian refugees from Syria, is to highlight the vulnerability of men caught in conflict and expose the dramatic reasons that push them to seek refugee status in Europe, said Soaade Messoudi, head of ICRC communications in Beirut.
“Men are very often not out­spoken about their vulnerability, though they are very vulnerable and their stories are underesti­mated. They are the first ones to be shot at, the first to be detained and tortured and, when they move to another country, they are the first ones to be humiliated,” Messoudi said.
“They are all people from the re­gion who have lost their livelihood. In the Middle East, men are expect­ed to be providers. It is a matter of honour and pride… So if they can­not do it anymore, it really brings them down; it has a huge psycho­logical impact.”
The exhibition is meant to ad­dress a global audience, especially in Europe where war-weary mi­grants from the Middle East are stigmatised and stereotyped as ex­tremists and potential terrorists.
For Messoudi, it is like a “busi­ness card” aimed at introducing the migrants and their dramatic stories to a global audience. “The concept is to link the reality in the Middle East with this huge migra­tion to Europe, which has stirred tremendous rage and racism,” she said. “The unknown makes Euro­peans look at the Middle East with fear. This (exhibition) is a moment for the audience to meet those peo­ple, to take four minutes to listen to their stories.
“By showing them as a piece of art in very beautiful black-and-white pictures, we wanted to do a statement — to say don’t look at them as victims; these are survi­vors who have been through a lot and they are still there. They don’t need pity. They don’t need people to look down at them but to show them some regard.”
Palestinian Ali Chatle is also pro­filed in the exhibition. Palestinians in Lebanon live under harsh eco­nomic and social conditions, made worse by the influx of refugees from Syria. “Work opportunities are rarer. Water and electricity are also scarcer. So I decided to leave the country to provide a better life for my children,” Chatle says.
Several attempts to migrate to Europe with his family failed. “I had sold everything I own. Now I decided to head to Russia; how­ever, my dream is to return to Pal­estine one day… You asked me if I have any good memories in my life, but honestly I can’t think of any.”
The exhibition is expected to tour ICRC delegations in Europe and may be featured at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May.