Art

Refugees Tell Their Stories Through Mementos

Jim Lommasson shows the human side of impersonal statistics with photographs of the personal belongings that immigrants brought with them.

From Jim Lommasson, What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization (courtesy Jim Lommasson)

KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Since the war in Iraq began in 2003, 140,000 Iraqis have been displaced and have become refugees in the United States, leaving behind their belongings, families, histories, and cultures. Added to this number are the approximately 20,000 Syrian refugees who have come to the US since 2011 to escape a seemingly interminable civil war. Photographer Jim Lommasson’s exhibition What We Carried: Fragments and Memories from Iraq and Syria movingly shows the human side of these impersonal statistics with photographs of the personal belongings and mementos that immigrants brought with them as they began new lives in new societies.

This traveling exhibition, organized by the Arab American National Museum (AANM) in Dearborn, Michigan, has gained momentum and critical attention since it debuted at the AANM in 2016. It has since traveled to Portland, Oregon; Boston; San Diego; Los Angeles; and Chicago; and is currently on view at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In May, it’s headed to the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration History, an apt venue to discuss welcoming the displaced and dispossessed, located at America’s most iconic port of entry.

Installation view of Jim Lommasson, What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization (courtesy Arab American National Museum)
From Jim Lommasson, What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization (courtesy Jim Lommasson)

Lommasson conceived this project while he was completing Exit Wounds, a book project comprising photographs of and interviews with veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. The artist wanted to balance these interviews with Iraqi voices so he began interviewing Iraqis civilians who were caught in the crossfire. One, a female refugee living in Portland, disarmingly commented, “Thank you for removing Saddam Hussein, but did America have to destroy my entire country in the process?” This exchange sparked the idea for a project that would complement the stories in Exit Wounds.

Working with various refugee agencies in Portland, Oregon, in 2010 Lommasson began photographing Iraqi and Syrian refugees in their homes and apartments. The project’s narrative arc took shape when he noticed that most refugees had one or two personal belongings that they managed to bring from their homelands. These refugees fled quickly to escape war-torn areas, forcing them to leave nearly everything behind, including their histories, languages, and cultures. Anything they brought carried great personal significance; these personal effects became Lommasson’s entry point to their individual stories.

From Jim Lommasson, What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization (courtesy Arab American National Museum)
From Jim Lommasson, What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization (courtesy Arab American National Museum)

As Lommasson photographed the belongings and mementos his subjects brought to America, he’d give them a copy of the print to write their stories on the 19 by 13-inch image. This allowed his subjects to tell their stories in their own words, granting them a sense of agency. Many of these objects have clear associations with the subjects’ homelands: for example, a lute emblazoned with an image of the ancient Assyrian king Ashurbanipal or an Iraqi flag. Other objects are arresting precisely because of their familiarity — Barbie dolls and teddy bears — things that point to a shared human experience between people on different sides of the world. One especially poignant photograph simply shows Arabic handwriting against a white void; when translated, we learn that this refugee, Endrious Esho, in his haste to get his family out of the Isis-controlled province of Nenewah, Iraq, left everything behind.

What We Carried evolves with every exhibition because Lommasson expands the project for each venue by photographing the personal effects of local refugee populations. At the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, nearly an entire wall highlights the stories of Syrian refugees who settled in Kalamazoo, which, as the exhibition’s wall text proudly states, has been sanctuary city for refugees since the 19th century.

From Jim Lommasson, What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization (courtesy Jim Lommasson)
From Jim Lommasson, What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization (courtesy Arab American National Museum)

Lommasson says that the show has been well-received in all of its locations. He is grateful for the eclecticism of the show’s host venues and the diverse audience it brings in. The exhibition heightens our awareness in the US of civil and political strife on the other side of the world, such as the genocide of the Yazidi in Iraq, which has received relatively little media attention in the West. But it also introduces local refugee populations, with which American audiences might not be acquainted. It gently reminds those of us who were born in the US or relocated here under different circumstances of the obligations of being human. Referring to his subjects, Lommasson told Hyperallergic, “members of their families might have been killed, and they might have had to get on a rubber raft, but they found a safe harbor in Kalamazoo. And that’s the America we want to be.”

What We Carried: Fragments and Memories from Iraq and Syria continues at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum (230 North Rose Street, Kalamazoo, Michigan) through April 15. The exhibition travels to the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration History from May 25 through Sept 3.

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