A Recovered Past; Loss and Resilience in UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage

Bailey Vehslage

Maya Bernstein

Maya Bernstein

Viewers shoot like pinballs across the room, to spend a minute—two, five, ten—entranced by stories of destruction and creation, told through a pair of headphones and recreated inside a piece of luggage. In UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage, artist Mohamad Hafez and writer Ahmed Badr work together across mediums to humanize the label of “refugee.” They show us what people lose and leave behind when forced away from home by conflict—and what they take with them.

UNPACKED has relatively simple aims: to bring to light the forgotten stories of refugees, a few individual histories lost to time and space, and to find beauty and hope in the destruction. While the people and places featured are unique, their stories are all too common; these are not tales found in history books, rather they are found down the street, in the memories of neighbors, coworkers, and friends. Hafez and Badr seek to bring this shared psyche, this familiar trauma, to the foreground. They wish to take the baggage society tells refugees to discard, and find within it a shared thread of humanity that transcends borders and bullets.

Badr, a current student at Wesleyan, spent his summer-months interviewing former refugees who have relocated to the New Haven area. He captured their stories in audio recordings and condensed them into minute-long recordings, which play on a loop through headphones connected to each piece of art. Hafez brings these stories to life in three dimensions, recreating on a micro-scale the battered rooms and detritus-ridden streets that Badr’s subjects once called home.

The sculptures are partitioned into individual suitcases, which dot the walls of the exhibition space. Symbols jump out at you—a tea set, still perfectly arranged; a charred taxicab; a tricycle beside a covered body–remembrances of an ordinary life, cast in a devastating new light. Exposed rebar and electrical components show us that the damage is structural.

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Maya Bernstein

Maya Bernstein

A duality permeates the exhibition. You have two artists working in different mediums—one visual, and one aural. You see scenes of total destruction, of everyday life turned upside-down by explosions, lives uprooted in an instant; while at the same time, you hear a profoundly different tune: one of hope in the face of hardship.

Alone, Hafez’s sculptures are depressing in their realism. It’s all too easy to tune-out the images coming to us daily of imploded homes in Syria, of whole towns swept away in Puerto Rico, of bodies piled in Las Vegas. Indeed, to truly consider the human destruction happening on a daily basis around the world would be impossible.

People aren’t hard-wired to conceptualize mass suffering in real-time. When a neighbor feels pain we can empathize, but when we hear of the same pain being inflicted on someone across the globe, on millions across the globe, our reaction is more complex. Sure, we are outraged at the injustice, but a state of constant outrage and empathy is unsustainable.

Hafez’s art takes this feeling of confused sadness which we push to the periphery of our thoughts, and centers it in the pit of our stomachs. It’s a deep ache we feel when forced to confront the unfair realities dealt by life, when forced to consider that the apartment in Tikrit is not so different from the apartment in Middletown.

But this exhibition does more than remind us that people can be cruel. It shows us the strength it takes to have one’s fragile existence shattered in a moment, and to come out stronger on the other side.

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Bailey Vehslage

Bailey Vehslage

Take Joseph, for example.

Joseph is from Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he lived a comfortable and rewarding life—he married a journalist, had four kids, and was living out his childhood dream of practicing law. In 2011, political tensions rose to a boiling point after a contested presidential election, and violent protests plagued the city. Joseph made the difficult but necessary decision to flee, for his own safety and the safety of his family, leaving behind precious heirlooms and his beautiful home.

Joseph’s struggles did not end here. After relocating to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya in June of 2012, and then to Nairobi, on December 22nd, 2013 Joseph’s son Shadrack went missing. Despite Joseph’s best efforts to find his boy, Shadrack remains missing today.

But, as Badr says, “Joseph does not dwell on the past.” His son’s absence is painful—that is a void that can never be filled—but Joseph remains focused on things within his control. Having moved to New Haven in October of 2016, Joseph is committed to his new community, and to giving his children the two greatest gifts he can: safety, and education.

Joseph doesn’t like to be labelled “refugee.” He feels that once he crossed into the United States, it was a label he shed, like a piece of clothing. Many of Badr’s subjects expressed a similar sentiment, a desire to be viewed as more than just what has been done to them.  

This brings us to Fereshteh.

Her story is an astounding one. At 22 years of age, living in Tehran, Fereshteh founded a secret elementary school for Afghani children. Barred from the Iranian national school system, undocumented Afghani children had nowhere to turn for education, so Fereshteh worked day and night to create an illegal school for them inside a dark basement–quite literally, an underground school. There she taught 300 students per day, against heavy government scrutiny. She refused to let her young pupils be victims of circumstance.

When the political tides turned too strongly against her, Fereshteh had to make the same decision for herself. She immigrated to Connecticut—now, when asked when her birthday is, Fereshteh says she was born on the day she arrived in America. Like Joseph, she sees herself not as a refugee defined by her past. Her destiny will not be decided for her; Fereshteh takes life by the horns, and masters her own fate.

Finally, we have the Badr family.

For Ahmed Badr, our dedicated documentarian, this project is personal. On July 25th, 2006, when he was just eight years old, a missile entered his family’s home in Baghdad, Iraq. It smashed the bathroom window, and traveled on through the kitchen, before puncturing three gas canisters which had, miraculously, been emptied just a few days earlier. The Badr family escaped the incident shaken but unscathed, moving a week later to Syria, and then, through the United Nation’s refugee resettlement program, to Sioux Falls, South Dakota in May of 2008.

Today, age 19, Badr is working to inspire refugees worldwide to speak up, through the United Nations Migration Agency's TOGETHER podcast, which he hosts, and through Narratio, a platform he created for refugee youth empowerment through creative expression. In the “about’ section of Narratio, Badr says, “My story is one of many that are waiting to be shared. I do not want to be the exception, I want to be the rule.” UNPACKED is just a piece of Badr’s greater project: to inspire other former refugees to shed their baggage, and share their stories.

Flannery O’Conner wrote, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally.” Hafez and Badr understand that uncomfortable truths are often the most necessary to tell, and the least told. They also know that to illuminate the difficult truths of the world is to find a shimmer of humanity, reflecting back.   

Bailey Vehslage

Bailey Vehslage