Collaborative Project Shares Stories of Iraqi Refugees

"Diaspora." (Photo by Jim Lommasson, used with permission)
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March 31, 2017 - 6:45am

Oregon photographer Jim Lommasson has spent the last several years working with Iraqi refugees in a collaborative storytelling project. Some of that work is being shown now at the Sheldon Museum of Art, which brought him to Lincoln to meet with local refugees.


Several years ago, Jim Lommasson began photographing and interviewing veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a project he called Exit Wounds. After documenting the experiences of the soldiers, he says he wanted to talk to someone from the other side.

“And so I interviewed an Iraqi woman in Portland, Oregon and in the course of our conversation I asked her what she thought about the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And she said, I thank America for removing Saddam Hussein. But did you have to destroy my entire country to do that?”

Lommasson says that conversation planted the seed for his next project, focused on Iraqi and Syrian refugees. At first, he says he tried the same strategy he’d taken with American soldiers, photographing and interviewing them in their home environments.

“And that just didn't work. It didn't tell the story. And then almost by accident, I saw an object that one of the Iraqi participants had in her home,” Lommasson said. It was a photograph of her family.

Lommasson realized that the things people brought with them to the United States were embedded with rich, personal stories.

“Every refugee, when they leave, they can't bring much with them. They often leave under the cover of darkness, with a few personal items and maybe a kid under each arm. And so one has to pick the things that mean the most to them,” Lommasson said. 

He started photographing the objects, and then asking the participants to write on the printed photographs, telling the story behind the object.

“People chose things that would be expected, a picture of one's mother or family, a Koran or a Bible or a locket,” Lommasson said. “And then there's objects that you wouldn't expect, like Barbie dolls.”

Lommasson’s project, titled What We Carried, is on display at the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, part of an exhibition called “Conflict and Consequence.” The writings on each photograph, in English or Arabic, offer a glimpse into the many commonalities we share.

“One of the photographs that I think tells a lot of the story is by Dr. Bahir Bhuti and his wife. He has a picture of his family. And he has lines drawn to each of the family members and he wrote down where they have gone in the world. He doesn't know where his mother was buried,” Lommasson said. “And so I think that photograph really does speak to the diaspora, leaving home and trying to start a new life.”

Lommasson says his goal with the project is to build bridges and show people our common humanity, despite cultural differences we may have. Lommasson has taken the project to Boston, Chicago, Dearborn, San Diego and LA.

"Iraqi Flag"

"Translations"

"Barbies"

All photos by Jim Lommasson, used with permisson. See the whole series here.

“It actually puts us in their shoes because we start to think, what would we take? And it isn't just what you would take, it's what you're leaving behind,” Lommasson said. “And that's everything else. That's your job, your school, your culture, your history.”

During a visit to Lincoln in early March, Lommasson met with some Yazidi refugees. The Yazidi are a religious minority from northwestern Iraq. In 2014 they were systematically targeted by ISIS. United Nations investigators classified the repeated attacks as genocide. Many Yazidi refugees have settled in Lincoln, including Basim Alali.

“We have the largest Yazidi community in Lincoln, Nebraska and we consider Lincoln as our capital as well,” Alali said. For three years, he worked as a translator and interpreter for the U.S. Army in Iraq, which qualified him for a special visa to come to the U.S.

“We're very proud of that service and we've had thousands of Yazidis working as interpreters, security guards, carrying [out] the U.S. missions on a daily basis in Iraq,” Alali said.

In Lincoln, he continues to work as an interpreter for Arabic and Kurdish speakers in the schools, hospitals and courts. He’s a self-described activist and community advocate, raising awareness about the Yazidi people.

“We try to do our best to volunteer and do advocacy part and provide free interpretation, being a part of the community, going to the school, help the people. This is something that I'm very proud of,” Alali said.

Alali appreciates Lommasson’s work because he says sometimes it can be difficult for Americans to understand the plight of refugees, particularly from the Middle East.

“We are forced. It’s different when you have a choice to move. When you're forced to leave your homeland and you can't go back, it's very difficult,” Alali said. “It doesn't mean if we came from Middle East that we are here to threat the American national security of this country. We'd like to be a part of this community.”

Lommasson’s What We Carried project has been on display at several other museums, including the Arab-American National Museum in Michigan. He says the project has taken on a life of its own. He’s even been interviewed by television stations in Iraq.

“The project gets attention. And that's the whole point of doing this. It expands the work beyond brick and mortar. Beyond the museum, beyond the gallery,” Lommasson said.

And the project continues to evolve. After an exhibition at the Holocaust Museum in Illinois, Lommasson was asked to do a version of What We Carried with Holocaust survivors. He’s just starting on that effort.  

While Lommasson says this project has been important since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he says it’s gained added power in light of President Donald Trump’s administration and his efforts to block some refugees from entry into the US.

“If we had to leave our town because of some natural disaster or invasion, we would look just as tired and hungry as those refugees we see in photographs and videos,” Lommasson said. “They're also students, and dentists and engineers and teachers just like us. But there's been such an effort to "other" refugees and immigrants, and I think we need to see each other as human beings.”

Lommasson’s work is on display at the Sheldon Museum of Art through May 7th. Learn more here.
 

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