This year marks the 70th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention and with rising numbers of displaced people around the world, it remains as relevant as ever. Conflict is a major factor in the global displacement of people and one of the most significant of recent times has been the Syrian Civil War. Since it began ten years ago it has resulted in an estimated 5.7 million Syrians being forced to flee their homeland; more than 500,000 people have been killed or are missing.
It is important to remember and recognise that behind every single one of those statistics is a human being, a person with a unique story of hardship and heartbreak, but also of hope – and it is this that a timely new photography exhibition at the Impressions Gallery in Bradford, seeks to highlight. In Which Language Do We Dream? presents fresh insights into the issues facing displaced people through the photographic perspective of a Syrian family – Rami and Ruba al-Hindawi and their three children Mustapha, Yazan and Hannan – who are now living in East Yorkshire and who have first-hand experience of war, displacement, resettlement in a new country and the challenges of trying to rebuild their lives.
The multi-stranded show features archival family photographs rescued from Syria alongside contemporary photographs by Hull-based documentary photographer Rich Wiles, new work by the al-Hindawi family, as well as a specially commissioned film of WhatsApp photos sent and shared by their dispersed extended family. The project has been a long-term collaboration over a five-year period, from 2017 to 2021, beginning shortly after Wiles returned to the UK from Palestine where he had been living and working for several years.
“I spent quite a big part of my time in Palestine living in a refugee camp, so these are issues I am familiar with and that I have been exploring in my work for quite a long time,” he says. “I eventually got married in Palestine and my eldest daughter was born there, we came back to the UK in 2016 and my wife, who is a Palestinian refugee, then had to start going through the immigration process in this country. About a year later was the first time I met Rami and Ruba and we have been working together ever since. In 2016 in the media and especially in the right-wing press there was a lot of talk about immigration, Brexit and the refugee crisis, which is not a phrase I like to use, and sadly a lot of politicians misused some of the events taking place for their own political ends. With all my work I have always been interested in the longer story and the bigger picture.”
So, Wiles began shadowing the al-Hindawi family and documenting what was happening in their lives. “It started out as a straightforward documentary, fly-on-the-wall project – the kids had just started school, Rami and Ruba were going to college to learn English, they were getting to know the area, finding out where to do their food shopping, having family days out, that kind of thing. And then over time, in a very fluid and organic way, it became a lot more multi-layered.”
As for many refugees, the al-Hindawi family’s journey to a place of safety involved different stages. When their home city of Homs came under siege they were forced to flee to Lebanon where they lived as displaced people for five years before being among the few to be admitted to the UK under the British Government’s resettlement programme. Wiles suggested that they look for ways to incorporate ideas of identity and displacement into the project which is when the decision was made to include family archive photographs which they had managed to save and bring with them. Those precious images provide a way for them to connect with home and the past. “Rami and Rubi often talk about the importance of family and the biggest challenge for them is the loss of their extended family who are now displaced across several different countries,” says Wiles. “When they were in Syria, they lived very close together and grew up surrounded by them. They were very happy in Syria, never believing that would change – then the war came and everything changed very quickly. The photographs they brought with them show children’s birthday parties and other family occasions. It gives a context of what their life used to be like – and they are the kind of images anyone can relate to.”
Another layer of the project has been work produced by Ruba. In Homs she had worked in a photographic processing lab, so with Wiles’ support and encouragement during lockdown last year she began photographing herself, her husband and her children’s daily life as they navigated resettlement and integration.
“Through my pictures I want people to see that our children have integrated in school and in the area, Rami has found himself work and I have been working with Rich,” she says. “I want to show people that we are happy here but also how our lives have changed, we really miss our home and our families.
“The situation in Syria is still really bad, I don’t know if we will ever be able to go back and the most important thing for me is my children and husband’s safety. Working on this project helps me to feel part of something and photographs stay with you forever, they bring your memories back.”
For Wiles it was key that Ruba had the opportunity to tell her own story. “Ruba understands better than anyone what she has lived through, so it was really important that her voice was being heard through her fantastic work.” The exhibition aims to challenge the stereotypical images and negative perceptions of refugees.
“I want people who come to see the show to understand that Rami and Ruba and their children and millions of other displaced people like them are just trying to live a normal life, in safety,” says Wiles. “I want people to get a deeper context of what this all means. Despite what some politicians are saying there are not millions of people trying to get to the UK – they have been forced to leave their homes. Those people didn’t want to be displaced. In the family photos from Syria, you can see that they were happy there, living a life, working and they never expected, or wanted, that to stop. ”
The hope is to take the exhibition on tour and Wiles and the al-Hindawi family are discussing a photography book. “Our two families have become close friends,” says Wiles. “We are all living somewhere between homes, cultures and languages – we like to meet up, we will keep doing that and we expect that during that process photographs will continue to be taken. It is a work in progress, like life. It has been a really fascinating, hugely rewarding experience. We have built this special friendship which we all collectively treasure – and it has come about through the transformational power of arts and culture.”
In Which Language Do We Dream? is at Impressions Gallery, Bradford until November 13.
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