Art Seen

Artists Cleverly Use Suitcases To Tell The Stories Of Refugees And The Challenges They Face

"By telling people's stories through art, we realized that we could captivate and hook people into these stories."

A man named Mohamad Hafez created miniature, three-dimensional dioramas protruding from suitcases as a way to help tell stories of refugees and the struggles so many of them have had to grapple with in recent years. The intricate dioramas are recreations of the homes 10 refugee families were forced to leave behind, and each visual component is accompanied by an audio piece (via attached headphones) in which a refugee tells the story of what's depicted.

The Syrian architect and artist, together with a student and former Iraqi refugee Ahmed Badr, created this moving and thought-provoking project called UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage that has been on display in at Yale University's Whitney Humanities Center, and was shown earlier this month at New Haven's City-Wide Open Studios.


According to a website for the exhibit, UNPACKED — which was created last summer — "seeks to humanize the word 'refugee.'" Hafez focused on the visual aspects, while Badr met with each refugee family and recorded their stories for one to two minutes.

"Hafez sculpturally recreates rooms, homes, buildings, and landscapes that have suffered the ravages of war," the website adds. "Each is embedded with the voices and stories of real people — from Afghanistan, Congo, Syria, Iraq, and Sudan — who have escaped those same rooms and buildings to build a new life in America."

By recreating these intimate spaces alongside audio from the refugees themselves, Hafez and Badr hope to inspire viewers to relate to said refugees, even if their often heartbreaking experiences are unfamiliar. "In a divided society, if you speak politics, you are immediately dividing your audience," Hafez tells Mashable. "We came together, Ahmed and I, and we wanted to do something that engages anybody from the far left to the far right in this great nation."

Per the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly 66 million people were displaced worldwide in 2016, and that year the number of refugees reached an all-time high of 22 million people. 

Hafez adds, "By telling people's stories through art, we realized that we could captivate and hook people into these stories."

As can be expected, both Hafez and Badr have a strong personal connection to UNPACKED. Though Hafez is not a refugee himself, he became more aware of the refugee crisis in 2014 when his sister and brother-in-law were forced to flee Syria and escape to a refugee camp in Sweden, where he later visited them.

"I came back to the United States from that trip with something really different in my art practice," he explains. "When people said crazy statements about Muslims, immigrants, and refugees, they were now hitting home pretty dead on. Because I check the box on so many of these crazy statements."

Badr, on the other hand, is a refugee, and he was able to interview his mother for one of the suitcases because she and the rest of his family fled Iraq in 2006 after their home was bombed. They have since all resettled in various locations across the United States.

And even many of the suitcases themselves are tied to the history of refugees in some way. Several came from the grandchildren of former Jewish refugees who narrowly escaped persecution in Europe decades ago, and are all too familiar with the myriad of obstacles facing refugees today.

Though UNPACKED already succeeds in humanizing refugees, both Hafez and Badr hope to see the project continue to grow in the coming years. The goal is to have 50 suitcases total — one suitcase and one interview in every state — by the end of the current administration's first term in office, and for the exhibit to travel across the country.

"My ultimate goal is to have my artwork try — at least try — to bring people together again," Hafez concludes. "That's a goal that I would honor and cherish for the rest of my life."


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