I recently had the honor of taking a family portrait for a family that very recently arrived from Syria. The family fled their home town just outside of Aleppo.
I arrived at their home with a member of the resettlement agency who spoke Arabic. While I am incredibly grateful for having the help, I learned from this family that where there is a will to communicate there's a way. They told us about their Colombian friend. She has become a close friend in the short time they've been in the U.S.. She doesn't speak Arabic and this family doesn't speak Spanish. However, they manage to communicate using Google Translate. I thought that was absolutely brilliant!
We were welcomed in to have a seat and were offered something to drink. My visit felt very much like meeting new friends and not just business. One of the things I set out to do when I started this project was to make a connection with these families. I’ve watched so many news stories regarding refugees and was heartbroken enough by the footage that I wanted to reach out. Meeting these newly arrived families in their new homes has been more special to me than I can ever put into words. Shortly after we sat down, their teenage sons began to appear. Their oldest son entered the living room and began to speak to his father. At that moment I saw his dad do what can only be described as the international sign for "hey, say hello to our guests!" He gave his son a gentle shove and pointed in our direction as if to say, "we have guests, don't be rude." The boy turned to us and sheepishly said "hello" in his heavy accent. I didn't need an interpreter to help me with that exchange. I've done it a million times with my daughter and my mother did it a million times with me too. These exchanges are part of what makes this project so special. I have learned how similar these families are to mine. We may speak different languages and have different pasts, but underneath it all, we are so much more similar than we are different.
So... now, down to business. I asked them to gather on the couch. They smiled politely for the camera and we got our standard family portrait. But that’s not where the nooks and crannies of a family lie.
With the main shot done, I usually wait a bit. It doesn't take long before families relax and interact in their everyday way. Silliness ensues and I get to document loving moments. And THAT IS THE SHOT I WANT. I want to see them be themselves.
I should note that despite all of the silliness I saw during the session, I noticed that two of the boys had "Free Syria" bracelets on. It was then that I realized that even though they're here now, they still long for their home country to be free. I truly hope they see that some day... Some day soon.
Inevitably, the kids now wanted photos of themselves. What is it about kids and cameras? They took one of the standard sibling shots and then one of the boys said, "OK, JUST ME!" I couldn't help but crack up. Ah kids.
With that, I ask that today, on this World Human Rights Day, please welcome refugees into your community. Let's understand that they are families just like ours. Their kids can be just as goofy as ours. Break bread with them. Get to know them. I promise it will be worth it!
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.