Photographer, documentary filmmaker enlightens Chatfield library patrons about refugee experiences

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS Photographer James Bowey speaks to a gathering at the Chatfield Public Library this past Thursday evening about refugees and how the citizens of the world share things in common through their stories.
By : 
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy
Chatfield News

“After my father was jailed and beaten, we fled to Thailand. We lived in a tent along the border for 25 years. We moved whenever the Burmese military came across, or the Thai police raided our camps. A refugee is someone who cannot depend on anyone,” read photographer James A. Bowey, standing before the gathered audience at the Chatfield Public Library last Thursday evening.

He explained the evolution of his photographic exhibit about refugees, “When Home Won’t Let You Stay,” and how exchanging stories with someone deemed “other” through tribal attitudes in an increasingly polarized political climate can help bridge the divide between people who have lived in one place most of their lives and people who had to leave behind everything they had to save their own lives.

Bowey pointed to the photograph on the screen showing Sawlwin, a refugee from Maladaw village in Myanmar, whose words he had just shared.

“‘We lived in a tent for 25 years.’ What’s often been left out of the debate about refugees is that most refugees are living in tents, and to live in them for 25 years, that means that there are people who are getting married, having children,” he stated. “A refugee is someone who cannot depend on anyone.”

He went on to another photograph. “This is Zaina, and I took her picture in her parents’ living room. Her parents told me how she’d been a happy, talkative girl, but the young woman I met that day was very scared and probably had PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). It was very gripping…I took her photograph first, and this particular experience created the project that it became.”

He elaborated, “It became a long process of talking and trust-building, and in speaking with Zaina, I spoke with her for half an hour, and those words below her photograph are every single word she said in that half hour. As a journalist, I felt that I’d failed, and I was quite vexed about what to do about it. I got to the car, and it was there that I realized that I don’t need to know everything at all. Everything I needed to know was there.”

Iraqi refugee Zaina, in her succinctness, had told Bowey, “I was 12 years old. All I remember is the shouting, and I see my uncle killed — that’s all. And my mother screaming.”

It occurred to Bowey that her words could stand alone as “found poems” beneath the shadow-lit photographs he took of her, as could the words of the other refugees he’d photographed – of Yatha from Myanmar who’d survived a brutal beating and near-drowning; of Ahmednor from Mogadishu, Somalia, a journalist who’d fled his city with nothing more than the clothes he was wearing because of threats to his family if he remained; of Ayan, also of Mogadishu and who shared her story in the words, “I was 12 years old. I wore my best dress, like we were taking a trip. But fleeing means you let go of everything you can’t carry. First it was the photographs and clothes, then the food, then water. You get to the point where you can only carry yourself, and death would be better. Somehow you continue.”

Bowey remarked that in his realization that Zaina needed to say no more was also a common story, a personal one that helped him come to the conclusion that he ought to forge onward with his project by letting viewers fill in around the words with empathetic imagination as a means of better understanding the struggles that people everywhere endure, though some have harder journeys than others.

“‘My mother screaming…’ We had a shared experience in that. When I was a teenager, my father went missing, and my mother started looking for him. She kept calling people, going out to look for him, and day turned into night, and eventually, my father was found, and we received a phone call that my father had died,” Bowey shared. “My mother screamed…and I will never forget that shared experience.”

While humans are tribal, Bowey said, they are also empathetic. “We have the ability to vicariously understand the experience of another. The original usage of the word was ‘feeling into.’ The empathetic imagination – each of us has this ability to imagine the life of another…and looking inward to see outward. Empathy does not require agreement, but empathy allows us to reason.”

He gave global statistics of how many people are considered to have been forcibly removed from their homes in 2017 — an estimated 68.5 million – with approximately 25.4 million of those being considered refugees by the United Nations, including people like Ayan, who had to make the decision whether to carry her niece another step further or leave her behind because “you can carry only yourself, and death would be better.”

“It’s morally unsustainable that the projected number of refugees will be 200 million due to war, climate change and famine,” Bowey continued. This year, the United States set the cap for refugee resettlement at 30,000, and we won’t even reach that many. The issue of refugees has become the single most polarizing issue today.”

The United States polling almost split down the middle as to whether to welcome refugees or turn them away, and it’s also Britain’s determining factor in leaving the European Union. The term refugee is a particular legal designation given to people who forcibly left their homes, Bowey explained, and it’s given by the United Nations.

“If the United Nations determines they can never return home, then they’re approved for resettlement in a different country,” Bowey said. “The other term is ‘asylee,’ or someone who arrives at the border of a country and would like to gain admittance before going through the process. When an asylee shows up at a border, they are legal. It has been recent that this has been the primary group we have seen the need to be protected against with a wall. That’s very much what is going on in our country, and what it means to be a refugee is different for everyone – it can mean ‘victim,’ it can mean ‘enemies’ – and we’re not the only country at odds with ourselves, but in the fight to find a common solution, we’re tearing ourselves apart. This represents a crisis of human rights. If there’s no consensus…it also represents a threat to our democracy.”

The photographer related that most people might think of refugees and immigration as a “subtraction equation, when really, it’s a multiplication equation.”

Samira, formerly of Mogadishu and now of Minnesota, was 2 years old when her father was hung from a tree by guerilla soldiers, and afterwards, her mother fled with the children to a refugee camp in Uganda where they would live in a dung hut and subsist on found food.

“There was no floor or running water in their hut. Her mother went back to sell some land so they could have money to buy food, and her mother was killed,” Bowey said. “Samira got malaria three times, and by the third time, she wanted to die. Today, she’s in college to become a child psychologist.”

When Bowey spoke to her, he asked, “You’ve been through so much in your young life, so why have you chosen such a long path?”

In her reply, Bowey said she told him, “I never want another child to suffer the way I have.”

He continued, “That story tells me this: We’ve got the math wrong. Both sides of the political divide view it as a subtraction problem where there’s a limited number or we can’t have refugees in our communities, but in fighting over finding terms that we can all agree on. It’s a multiplication equation. Samira, as a child psychologist, will touch children many times. So, the question is, ‘What will be the multiplier?’”

Bowey offered that a young man from Mogadishu, named Mohamed, was among those who could be “multipliers” – the scholar’s “found poem” recalled incidents in his lifetime that spoke of the danger of being a student in a country at war and of having survived those years only to experience horror upon the last day of his formal education.

The accompanying statement with the photo reads, “When I was growing up and going to school, my father would say goodbye every day, not knowing if I would make it back home. At my graduation ceremony from medical school, a terrorist blew himself up. The force knocked me down. A schoolmate lost his eyes. I wrapped my shirt around his head, and held him.”

Bowey posited, “To get all the way through your education to the last day, and a terrorist has blown himself up, but does Mohamed leave, flee? No, he does the most beautiful thing…he wraps the person in his shirt. He’s now a doctor in Mankato.”

Towards the end of Bowey’s presentation, he gave the biographical poem of another Mohamed, this individual being from Wajid, Somalia. “For 21 years, I lived with my family in a one room tent in Djibouti. Very bad conditions. No running water. Robberies. Wild animals. My dream was to get a high school education and I had to sneak into Ethiopia each year to go to school. It was easy to feel hopeless. But even if you can’t see hope you don’t have to be hopeless.”

The photographer remarked, “The hope of others defines what possibilities there are for us all. Hope is what connects us all. Hope is the great multiplier of human connection and is a universal equation. Through my travels and exhibitions and the stories I’ve heard, I’ve learned we are all connected.”

He then took questions from the audience, and retired Rev. Norm Omodt was the first to speak up. “The first refugee we sponsored…I asked him to tell the story of his life, and he said, ‘I can’t’.”

Bowey shook his head. “Ninety-nine percent of refugees have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We want to paint a picture that ‘they’re here and everything is all better,’ but we have to remember their trauma.”

Joel Young inquired, “How did you find the refugees you interviewed, and how did you get them to share their stories?”

Bowey answered that he meets refugees through agencies that are willing to refer him to them. “It’s interesting that throughout my entire career, I’ve found someone who has a story to share and a person who wants to hear it. They’re sharing with me the most difficult experiences of their lives, and my goal is to be the shepherd of their story, to try to bring out their stories.”

Young addressed Zaina’s silence. “What’s it like to have a half-hour conversation with a person who only speaks a number of words?”

Bowey stated, “I missed the whole point – I had my professional hat on, and I was thinking of telling a more journalistic story. At one level, I’m touched by her story, but I’m still in my professional guise and I have a certain professional track record. Stupid me…I missed the jewel that was there. It took me getting to the car to realize that.”

Bill Sullivan questioned, “You’ve said you found refugees through agencies, but my question is, ‘Where do we find refugees?’”

Bowey said, “There are religious organizations doing asylum work, and getting involved with English as a second language (ESL) classes is good – if you want to see motivated, excited people, go sit in, because we have a canard that they don’t want to learn English, but most refugees are illiterate in their own languages. The other thing I encourage you to do is that there’s no reason organizations can’t start interacting with this community – you can reach out to resettlement agencies and invite someone for a potluck and discussion. Refugees just want to be treated like people – if you have them over for dinner, they’ll be grateful and remember it – you can’t fail at it when you’re trying to make that connection.”

There were numerous other questions posed by attendees, and Bowey took each one, encouraging his listeners to seek the commonalities in the stories that human beings tell one another because, he reiterated, that is how people’s lives are remembered and the stories told about them changed for the best.