Today’s post has lots of twists and turns. Bare with me, it’s like a scratchpad of my brain, often operating on hyper speed and jumping from one thought to the next.
I had the pleasure of meeting and photographing a Sudanese family yesterday. It was a sweet family of 6. They have kids ages 7, 4, 2, and a 6 month old baby girl. Their house was located within a suburb community, but way off the beaten path. You had to turn off of an unmarked road and then travel about a mile down an unpaved rocky path. It’s the day before Thanksgiving and as I drove down the rocky path all I could think about was how they’d be stranded for days if it snowed… when it snowed. No plow was coming in here and they were only one of 3 houses secluded down this road.
I think it’s interesting how concerned I became for them and I hadn’t even met them yet. How would they get groceries? And with an elderly great grandmother living with them, how would they get help if they needed it? Mostly when we talk about refugees, we lump them together. The Refugee crisis. Those people. The moment we really personify them, put a name with a face and actually meet them, that thinking changes. This was now a family with 4 little ones that had come from an incredibly hot climate to now having to deal with snow and its many challenges. When it snows later this year I’ll be thinking of my new little friends and their parents and grandparents... hoping they’re ok.
As we walked into their home, the family was incredibly welcoming. I went with my friend from the resettlement agency and everyone lights up when they see her. They just smile and thank her pretty constantly. It occurred to me that she’s the first impression they get of the United States. The moment they get off the plane, she’s the first to greet them. She takes them to their new home and gets them settled in. Naturally, whenever they see her, it is with great warmth and affection.
Like with most family shoots, it takes a little bit to get the kids warmed up to my having a camera in their face. They’re shy and not sure of why I’m doing it, not to mention the language barrier we have to overcome. However, as soon as I took one photo and showed them the image from the LCD screen on the back of the camera, they immediately giggled and let down their guard. It’s incredible how much kids love to see themselves in photos.
Parents soon joined them and they sat down on the couch in what seemed like a very serious group passport photo. All stoic faces looked back at me. I put on my silly face, asked my friend to make tons of crazy sounds and got the kids to laugh. I asked them to squish in tight and give each other a big squeeze. Suddenly we had lots of laughs. It was a beautiful shoot.
I’m getting better at communicating with these families given that I don’t speak their language. We’re making it work somehow and I love the interactions. I wondered how many cameras are pointed toward them throughout their journey from war or persecution to official refugee status. They seem to only be photographed as a news piece. “Here are some sad refugees that we’ve saved. Look at them. How sad.” I was asking something different from them. I didn’t want to focus necessarily on their challenging journey. That story has been told. I wanted to welcome them to the United States, and have a chance to photograph the loving family with 4 adorable goofy kids. I wanted to capture how mom carries her little 6 month old on her back, wrapped snug in a baby carrier and sound asleep. I think that once I asked them to just love and cuddle with one another they understood that this wasn’t another typical refugee shoot. This was a family portrait. We spent a little time together and then said our goodbyes.
As I left I became emotional at wrapping my head around just how far they’ve come. Sudan. SUDAN! That’s on the other side of the world. I wondered what their life was like there before they were rocked by the country’s second longest civil war. Now they find themselves in southern Maryland, and while they’re safe, they are now encountering the new struggle of surviving in a country where they don’t speak the language and now have to learn to navigate, work, and raise their children. After spending some time with them, I see lots of love in their home. I see a father who is determined to learn english, children who are picking it up quickly, and lots of support from their community. I became hopeful. I think they’ll be just fine. And now that I know them personally and not as obscure distant refugees, I can help too. I can check on them, offer to shovel snow when the time comes, or just go take more photographs as those beautiful kids grow up. All good things to look forward to.
The Refugee Family Memories Project gives newly resettled refugee families family portraits. The project helps families rebuild their family albums as they most likely leave all of their photographs behind when they have to flee their homes. In addition, the project works to change the anti-refugee rhetoric in the United States. This project shows that I stand with those who suffer in the midst of war and violence, and that I wish to dispel the myth that refugees are to be rejected. These are families just like ours.