How suitcases and model homes are helping tell the stories of refugees from around the world
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There are currently more displaced people around the world than at any other time on record – over 65 million people, according to the UN. And while plenty of African and Asian countries are doing as much as they can to host the world’s 22.5 million refugees, the overall response in the West seems to be one of suspicion. Nations have, historically, been wary of welcoming refugees into their countries. But with the leader of the United States calling for a complete ban on refugees, perceptions have to be changed in order for vulnerable people to reach safety. And that’s where Syrian-born artist Mohamed Hafez and Iraqi-born writer Ahmed Badr come in. Mohamed and Ahmed have been telling the stories of refugees from around the world – Afghanistan, Congo, Syria, Iraq and Sudan – who have fled war zones and built new lives in America. But they’ve been doing it in a very innovative way. “A big misconception is that refugees and migrants all come from impoverished backgrounds,” Mohamed, an architect who moved to the US on a student visa, said. The project he’s undertaken with Ahmed, called Unpacked, shows exactly what some refugees are leaving behind when they flee their homes, by remodelling parts of them in ornate detail. “When you see this luxurious interior in the living room, or nice furniture, nice fabrics, nice wallpaper; this is a life that existed. Comfortable lives. Some people might have left nothing but also many people have left a lot, have risked so much to get here. They did not choose to leave, they did not come here on a vacation. They had to leave.” Mohamed chose to display the homes in suitcases because he felt everyone would be able to grasp what they represent – the emotional baggage that comes with leaving a whole life behind. It’s a trauma both artists know well, with Ahmed and his family fleeing Iraq when he was seven and Mohamed’s sister recently becoming a refugee in Sweden. Ahmed, whose family spent two years in Syria before being resettled in America in 2008, interviewed families and saw his conversations turn into detailed models thanks to Mohamed. His interviews can be heard through headphones next to the suitcases in the museums across America where they’ve been exhibited, and one of the homes in the exhibition was his own. “Over the past three, three-and-a-half years I’ve been retelling my own story. And I realised that as I was retelling my own story it was empowering me, so I wanted to give other people that same feeling,” Ahmed said. This project was the first time Ahmed and his family had discussed leaving Iraq, and seeing his house recreated by Mohamed was emotional. “It was really, really visceral to tangibly see something that fundamentally changed your life forever. And we’re seeing it not just with my story, but for others that we’ve featured as part of Unpacked.” Some of the stories being told through Unpacked are quite remarkable. There’s that of Fereshteh, an Afghan raised in Iran, who at 22 founded an underground school in the Islamic republic for the undocumented Afghan children unable to receive education legally. The school nurtured more than 300 children each day, and Mohamed chose to build the basement where they learned for Fereshteh’s suitcase.
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