ICRC exhibition a powerful narrative of men as victims of war
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.