A car is covered with dust and rust, surrounded by debris scattered across the front yard. Elsewhere, a bedroom is completely exposed to the elements, where a busted wooden dresser sits on top of destroyed toys. If you look closely, you can see a child’s shoes sticking out from beneath the rubble.
These are some of the harrowing scenes out of Syria, where conflict and civil war over the past six years have cost millions of people their homes, livelihoods, and, for many, their lives.
But these specific images aren’t in videos or even photographs. Instead, they’re presented as miniature, three-dimensional dioramas protruding from open suitcases — a new art project that sheds light on the ongoing refugee crisis by recreating the homes 10 refugee families were forced to leave behind.
“We realized that we could captivate and hook people into these stories.”
The project is called UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage, created by Syrian artist Mohamad Hafez in collaboration with student and former Iraqi refugee Ahmed Badr. The goal of the project, Hafez says, is to further humanize refugees, immigrants, and Muslims, and inspire people across the political spectrum to relate to them.
“In a divided society, if you speak politics, you are immediately dividing your audience,” he says. “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.”
Art, Hafez explains, can be a neutral platform — you can engage people without opening your mouth.
“By telling people’s stories through art, we realized that we could captivate and hook people into these stories,” he says.
Hafez chose suitcases as a medium because he’s been interested in the word “baggage” for a long time — everything emotional and physical that the word entails. He wanted to use a medium that a lot of people could relate to, and show that the journey is never the whole story.
“All of us went through bumps in our life,” he says. “It does not define us. These labels — refugee, immigrant — they do not define us.”
“I came back to the United States from that trip with something really different in my art practice.”
Hafez was born in Damascus and grew up in Saudi Arabia, but he isn’t a refugee himself. He came to the U.S. 14 years ago as a student at Iowa State University, before the conflict, and later obtained a green card. Now he’s an architect based in New Haven, Connecticut, where he works with the firm Pickard Chilton specializing in glass skyscrapers and corporate buildings.
But it was his personal life, and his nostalgia for his home, that led him to create art in his spare time. He became energized to change the narratives around refugees and immigrants when he realized he was treated differently while traveling with his wife, who wears a headscarf. There was more tension, he explains, and more upsetting body language.
Then, in 2014, his sister and brother-in-law in Syria became refugees, and escaped to a refugee camp in Sweden. Seeing his own family in those conditions compelled him to do something.
“I came back to the United States from that trip with something really different in my art practice,” he says. “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.”
He began to feel that it was a duty to create art in order to amplify the voices of refugees and immigrants.
A big part of the UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage project is its audio component. When on display, each suitcase has a headset so viewers can hear refugees tell their own stories depicted in the dioramas. Each suitcase represents a story from a refugee family that has resettled in the U.S. after leaving Afghanistan, the Congo, Syria, Iraq, and Sudan.
Ahmed Badr, Hafez’s collaborator, ran every interview. He met with each refugee family over tea and baklava, recording their stories for one or two minutes.
“That was our challenge,” Hafez says. “People’s attention spans are milliseconds these days. You only have them for 60 seconds, and those 60 seconds better be good.”
For one of the suitcases, Badr interviewed his own mother about their home in Iraq, which was bombed in 2006. In the middle of the night, a mortar shell crashed through five different rooms. Luckily Badr, his parents, and his sister all survived. They left Iraq, and eventually resettled in the U.S. His parents now live in Houston, Texas. The audio interview is the first time Badr talked to his family about the incident.
A lot of the suitcases have been donated by American supporters of Hafez’s work. Jewish collectors, for example, have given him the suitcases of their grandparents who escaped persecution in Europe, and experienced a lot of the same xenophobia refugees and immigrants face in 2017.
He describes this as yesterday’s immigrants helping to tell the stories of today’s immigrants. UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage 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.
The goal is to have 50 suitcases total — one suitcase and one interview in every state — by the end of President Trump’s term. The artists are currently in talks with various institutions to make it a reality. Hafez wants people across the country to see the exhibits, and really learn about refugees’ stories before they make rash judgments.
“My ultimate goal is to have my artwork try — at least try — to bring people together again,” Hafez says. “That’s a goal that I would honor and cherish for the rest of my life.”