Tuesday 20 August 2019

How suitcases and model homes are helping tell the stories of refugees from around the world

In exquisite detail.

A suitcase with a home in it built by Mohamed Hafez
A suitcase with a home in it built by Mohamed Hafez

By Kameron Virk

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.”

A suitcase made by Mohamed Hafez

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.

The inside of a house built by Mohamed Hafez

“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.

After applying for refugee status, Fereshteh arrived in the US three years later in 2011, where she’s now a professor of Farsi at the University of New Haven, an active translator for refugees, and attending nursing school.

Joseph, a prominent lawyer who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo, told another of the stories that stuck with Ahmed. After receiving refugee status in Kenya, Joseph’s son was kidnapped and is still missing.

Joseph’s suitcase features a dining table with several chairs all around the table, except for one off to the side that represents his son.

Ahmed said: “When Joseph saw this he became very, very emotional, and it was very emotional for both me and Mohamed to witness that.

“You’re literally presenting someone with their own tragedy and their own triumph. It opens the door for many reactions.”

Mohamed believes that seeing the suitcases can have a therapeutic effect on the people they represent.

“They could’ve been more therapeutic if they made them themselves, but with that not being a possibility I think having their stories being out in the public and people coming to them and saying your story matters, you matter… you cannot escape these suitcases, you can’t pass by them and pretend you’ve seen nothing.”

Mohamed also hopes his art can help people who call for travel bans and building walls to see refugees not as a monolith, but people with histories and lives and loves.


“We realised that if we introduced ourselves as Muslim Arab American artists we are going to get kicked out of the room immediately, because we’ve already been judged two million ways. So we said OK, how can we speak with our mouths shut?” he said.

Since starting the project Mohamed has filled 10 suitcases with aspects of the lives a family has left behind, and the duo hope to tell 50 stories to represent the 50 states.

The reception it has received promises to make that a reality, with immigrants and their descendants – a lot of them Jewish – donating suitcases.

A car modelled my Mohamed Hafez

“They resonate with this push back and xenophobia,” Mohamed said. “They’ve been donating to me their suitcases, their miniature dollhouses.

“Nothing tells a more beautiful story about diversity and living together more than Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists coming together.

“A suitcase that belonged to a Jewish immigrant, donated by their grandchildren, for a Muslim Syrian artist – using yesterday’s immigrant’s belongings to tell today’s immigrant’s stories.”

A suitcase made by Mohamed Hafez

Through the project Mohamed and Ahmed have connected with lots of refugees living in the US – from delivery drivers and doctors to professors, engineers and lawyers.

He’s adamant he doesn’t want his work to “romanticise” refugees, but humanise them, and also show that it’s possible to “move forward”.

“Everybody goes through hardship. It is not the whole story, it is part of the story. That is not how the story ends,” he said.

You can listen to Fereshteh, and other refugees, tell their stories here.

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