‘Journeys Drawn’ reveals the reality of life as a refugee

“Journeys Drawn: Illustration from the Refugee Crisis,” runs until March 24 at the House of Illustration in London. (Supplied)
Updated 27 November 2018

‘Journeys Drawn’ reveals the reality of life as a refugee

  • 12 artists ventured into war zones and refugee camps to capture the lives of people living there
  • "Journeys Drawn" runs until March 24 at the House of Illustration in London

LONDON: A woman cradling a baby, a child’s drawing of his friends playing football surrounded by tanks, weary men sitting hunched in a tent with a faraway look in their eyes — these are some of the closely observed scenes captured by 12 artists who ventured into war zones and refugee centers to record the lives of men, women and children fleeing bombs, oppression and poverty.
Their work is now on show in “Journeys Drawn: Illustration from the Refugee Crisis,” which runs until March 24 at the House of Illustration in London. Curator Katie Nairne explained that illustrators are often better able to blend into their surroundings than photographers or film crews, and have greater personal contact with the people they are drawing — many of whom do not wish to be on camera.
“Reportage illustration can give a sense of immediacy in a way that the camera can’t,” she said. “In a lot of these situations, a camera would have been too insensitive or intrusive. Without a camera between you, you can get a human dialogue.”
Some of the artists were commissioned by charities including Save the Children to document the plight of children caught up in the turmoil — many suffering the additional nightmare of making the hazardous journey alone.
They have captured people in situations which most of us can scarcely imagine, documenting refugee experiences in Greece, Bulgaria, Italy, Syria and the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais. Other poignant images show refugees starting their new lives in Germany.
There are hard messages contained in the images and it is not comfortable digesting some of the views expressed. A scene drawn by reportage illustrator Olivier Kugler in ‘The Jungle’ in Calais — an illegal refugee camp which has now been dismantled by the French authorities — depicts some young Syrian refugees, with speech bubbles so we can follow their conversation. They discuss how they had tried to seek refuge in the Gulf but with no luck — and note that Gulf countries are not opening their doors, unlike Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. No explanation for this ‘closed door’ policy is given but it does strike the observer as odd, given the scale and proximity of the Syrian refugee crisis.
One of the men drawn by Kugler, Ammar Raad, was desperate to join his brother living in Newcastle in North East England. He has now made it to the UK and is studying at London Metropolitan University. He eventually — after many failed attempts — succeeded in making the hazardous crossing from France to the UK concealed in a suitcase aboard a coach. He attended the private viewing of the exhibition and brushed off his traumatic experiences as being nothing exceptional in the context of the suffering of his fellow Syrians.
A haunting illustration by David Foldvari, who regularly works for the New York Times, Guardian and Financial Times, depicts a young boy called Awet, whom he interviewed in Rome on a commission from Save the Children. He had some concerns, he said, about talking to the 15 year old, as he was worried about causing further trauma.
Awet’s story is a poignant reminder of the terrible ordeals suffered by many child refugees. He fled Eritrea and trekked from Ethiopia to Sudan. Smugglers crammed him and 30 others into a small pick-up truck bound for Libya. In Libya, they were kidnapped. Awet spent two months in a tiny room in an abandoned factory, sharing a small portion of pasta once a day with 11 others. Only after his family wired a ransom was he set free. He then had to endure the sea crossing in a boat that quickly took on water and ended up having to be rescued by the Sicilian coast guard.
He regards the Civico Zero center in Italy, supported by Save the Children, as “a beautiful place.”
Two of the illustrators, Majid Adin and Mahmoud Salameh, are themselves former refugees. Iranian cartoonist Adin fled to Europe in 2015 following persecution in his home country, spending six months in the Calais jungle before reaching London in the back of a refrigerated lorry. Within weeks of arriving in the UK he heard about an international competition to design a video for Elton John’s 1970s hit “Rocket Man.” He entered a video inspired by his own journey, revealing the fear, danger and loneliness he endured, particularly the painful separation from his wife and children. Incredibly, having endured the deprivations of the Calais camp, 12 months later Adin found himself back in France, in Elton John’s somewhat-more-luxurious home in Nice, to celebrate winning the competition.
Palestinian-Syrian refugee Mahmoud Salameh also brings his own direct experience into his work. He spent 17 months in an Australian detention center before settling in Sydney, where he works as a cartoonist, animator and graphic artist.
Toby Morrison was commissioned by Save the Children in 2015 to illustrate Syrian refugees waiting to register for asylum at a center in Germany. Here he met 10-year-old Yousef — one of many child migrants making dangerous journeys without their parents — who occupied himself by drawing his own pictures while Morrison drew him. Yousef’s drawing of his friends playing football surrounded by tanks is included in the images that Morrison shows in the exhibition.
Graphic novelist Karrie Fransman’s ‘infinite zoom’ animated film is inspired by the true stories of four Eritrean refugees who made the dangerous journey across Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya to Europe. The film takes you through a ‘time tunnel,’ where you move rapidly from your destroyed home in palm-studded subtropical lowlands to a cold, grey alien landscape in Europe, conveying the sorrow of displacement — only to then suffer the nightmare of being sent back to the very place you fled; a circle of suffering endured by those who fail to qualify for asylum.
“Journeys Drawn” is a remarkable exhibition which really brings to life the personal stories of refugees. Nairne pointed out that the journeys are often not linear and include many stages of uncertainty and seemingly endless waiting.
By focusing on the real lives of an individual or a small group, each illustrator transports the viewer into those lives. For a moment, they emerge from the ‘collective’ of refugees, and that brings home the fact that what happened to them could happen to anyone caught up in the vicious grip of war, famine, poverty and corruption.

Talal Derki: ‘I’m not a part of this, but I have to understand’

Updated 22 February 2019

Talal Derki: ‘I’m not a part of this, but I have to understand’

  • Why the Syrian filmmaker risked his life for his Oscar-nominated documentary ‘Of Fathers and Sons’

DUBAI: Of all the achievements of Arab filmmakers in recent times, Talal Derki’s “Of Fathers and Sons” may be the most stunning. The only non-American film nominated for Best Documentary at the 91st Academy Awards, which take place this Sunday, “Of Fathers and Sons” is the kind of film one might imagine making, but never believe could actually be made. It’s a story that Derki risked his life to tell.

For two and a half years, the Syrian filmmaker lived in northern Syria with Abu Osama, a member of the Al-Nusra Front (also known as Al-Qaeda in the Levant), and his family. There, he pretended to be sympathetic to their cause so that he could film them in an attempt to learn, first-hand, how young men become radicalized. Focusing on a father and his sons, the film lays bare in terrifying detail how young boys with kindness in their hearts find themselves in an Al-Qaeda training camp at a tender young age, all to gain the approval of their beloved patriarch.

“The idea started with my previous film,” Derki tells Arab News. “After the siege of Homs in my last film, ‘Return to Homs,’ after all the massacres, a lot of people on the ground moved to be more radical. It’s a war, but I started wondering how this movement managed to brainwash and bring all these people (over) to their side, and how they gained their trust. I saw a lot of kids with their fathers involved in fights. All these things put questions in my mind. I’m not a part of this, but I also have to understand.”

Derki didn’t want to make a film about the Syrian war or about violence. He wanted to examine life behind closed doors, focusing on the generation of young Syrian men raised in wartime. To do so, he had to go deep undercover.

After starting research for the film at the end of 2013, Derki used many ‘fixers’ to help him work his way into this close-knit community, gain people’s trust, and identify his subjects. He settled on Abu Osama and his sons. He convinced them that he was on their side, and was given intimate access to their lives in return — all the time aware that he could not let them know what kind of film he was actually making.

“Abu Osama wasn’t well known. He’s not the leader. What attracted me to him is how strongly he believed in what he was doing, in the ideology. When you look at him, he looks like a normal father, a lovely father,” says Derki. “This paradox between these two faces — between a lovely father and the father who is ready to sacrifice his kids in order to (realize) his ideology — this is part of my cinematic vision. If I went to a regular cliché jihadist, people would not watch the film. People would leave the cinema after five minutes, believe me.”

Though Derki managed to gain the trust of the family and the Al-Nusra Front, he was always conscious that no matter how friendly they were with him, he was never really creating a true connection with anyone he was filming. And he was powerless to create positive change while he was there.

“I was undercover as a sympathizer,” he says. “This is how they know me. I couldn’t be more than an observer. Sometimes, if I could, I would act as a merciful guy with the kids so they would not get punishment. I played that role. But in a big-topic issue, you couldn’t do anything but make your own film out of this chaos.

“I was connected to them only as a filmmaker, because, at the end of the day, if they knew I had a different purpose than what they thought, I would lose my life,” he continues. “When I had a good moment to film, I was satisfied and happy. As time passed, I had to accept all these things — all these ideas, all this behavior — without any (question). My mission there was to make a film.”

“Of Fathers and Sons” is purely observational. Derki keeps himself out of the story as much as possible, zooming in on a father and his son in everyday moments, in order to see how they interact, the love and trust they build, and the ways that a son’s dedication to his father is twisted to dark ends.

“The knowledge I got from this experience is about the roots of violence — the circle of violence — and the eternal relationship between the dictatorial father and his son; the masculine power that destroys our society,” Derki explains. “All of these things gave me more understanding that it all starts from childhood. Why does someone like me decide not to carry a weapon? If you grow up in a society in which your father, your teacher, are harming you, and punishing you by hitting you, and you’re used to receiving violence, then when you grow up you are very capable of carrying weapons and killing someone for any idea you start to believe in.”

By the second half of the film, the eldest son of Abu Osama is participating in an Al-Qaeda training camp. In one harrowing scene, the young boys are told to lie still on the ground while bullets are shot next to their heads and feet in order to teach them to lose their fear. Even now, years on from filming, Derki thinks about Abu Osama’s young children, hoping they can escape from the fate that already killed their father, who Derki says died at the end of 2018.

“Emotionally, I feel sad for the kids. They are still around 12 years old, it’s still possible to take them out of this and start a new life. Even in the moment when I was there, it was still possible,” he says. “They appreciate life. (But) in this ideology, they appreciate death. Death is their request — not life. Not humanity.”

Derki is speaking to Arab News from Los Angeles, ahead of Sunday’s Oscars ceremony. While there, Derki has had the chance to celebrate with the other Arab nominees, Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek and Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki.

“It was great to meet them and to have some conversation — to be three nominees from the Arab world at the biggest global celebration. It’s very intense,” he says. “I hope that, in the upcoming year, this will bring more success for Arab filmmakers.

“Nadine said she liked it so much. And I liked her film,” Derki continues. “I really want to work with Rami in the future, he’s a very talented actor.”

Whatever happens at the Oscars, Derki hopes the attention his film has received will ultimately be a force for good in the Arab world.

“It’s about how we can protect the new generation in the other Muslim countries,” he explains. “What can we do to build a generation without violence, to focus more on life, love, and communicating with other cultures, instead of building walls around us?”