‘Journeys Drawn’ reveals the reality of life as a refugee

LONDON: A woman cradling a baby, a child’s drawing of his friends playing football surrounded by tanks, weary men sitting hunched in a tent with a faraway look in their eyes — these are some of the closely observed scenes captured by 12 artists who ventured into war zones and refugee centers to record the lives of men, women and children fleeing bombs, oppression and poverty.Their work is now on show in “Journeys Drawn: Illustration from the Refugee Crisis,” which runs until March 24 at the House of Illustration in London. Curator Katie Nairne explained that illustrators are often better able to blend into their surroundings than photographers or film crews, and have greater personal contact with the people they are drawing — many of whom do not wish to be on camera.“Reportage illustration can give a sense of immediacy in a way that the camera can’t,” she said. “In a lot of these situations, a camera would have been too insensitive or intrusive. Without a camera between you, you can get a human dialogue.”Some of the artists were commissioned by charities including Save the Children to document the plight of children caught up in the turmoil — many suffering the additional nightmare of making the hazardous journey alone.They have captured people in situations which most of us can scarcely imagine, documenting refugee experiences in Greece, Bulgaria, Italy, Syria and the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais. Other poignant images show refugees starting their new lives in Germany.There are hard messages contained in the images and it is not comfortable digesting some of the views expressed. A scene drawn by reportage illustrator Olivier Kugler in ‘The Jungle’ in Calais — an illegal refugee camp which has now been dismantled by the French authorities — depicts some young Syrian refugees, with speech bubbles so we can follow their conversation. They discuss how they had tried to seek refuge in the Gulf but with no luck — and note that Gulf countries are not opening their doors, unlike Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. No explanation for this ‘closed door’ policy is given but it does strike the observer as odd, given the scale and proximity of the Syrian refugee crisis.One of the men drawn by Kugler, Ammar Raad, was desperate to join his brother living in Newcastle in North East England. He has now made it to the UK and is studying at London Metropolitan University. He eventually — after many failed attempts — succeeded in making the hazardous crossing from France to the UK concealed in a suitcase aboard a coach. He attended the private viewing of the exhibition and brushed off his traumatic experiences as being nothing exceptional in the context of the suffering of his fellow Syrians.A haunting illustration by David Foldvari, who regularly works for the New York Times, Guardian and Financial Times, depicts a young boy called Awet, whom he interviewed in Rome on a commission from Save the Children. He had some concerns, he said, about talking to the 15 year old, as he was worried about causing further trauma.Awet’s story is a poignant reminder of the terrible ordeals suffered by many child refugees. He fled Eritrea and trekked from Ethiopia to Sudan. Smugglers crammed him and 30 others into a small pick-up truck bound for Libya. In Libya, they were kidnapped. Awet spent two months in a tiny room in an abandoned factory, sharing a small portion of pasta once a day with 11 others. Only after his family wired a ransom was he set free. He then had to endure the sea crossing in a boat that quickly took on water and ended up having to be rescued by the Sicilian coast guard.He regards the Civico Zero center in Italy, supported by Save the Children, as “a beautiful place.”Two of the illustrators, Majid Adin and Mahmoud Salameh, are themselves former refugees. Iranian cartoonist Adin fled to Europe in 2015 following persecution in his home country, spending six months in the Calais jungle before reaching London in the back of a refrigerated lorry. Within weeks of arriving in the UK he heard about an international competition to design a video for Elton John’s 1970s hit “Rocket Man.” He entered a video inspired by his own journey, revealing the fear, danger and loneliness he endured, particularly the painful separation from his wife and children. Incredibly, having endured the deprivations of the Calais camp, 12 months later Adin found himself back in France, in Elton John’s somewhat-more-luxurious home in Nice, to celebrate winning the competition.Palestinian-Syrian refugee Mahmoud Salameh also brings his own direct experience into his work. He spent 17 months in an Australian detention center before settling in Sydney, where he works as a cartoonist, animator and graphic artist.Toby Morrison was commissioned by Save the Children in 2015 to illustrate Syrian refugees waiting to register for asylum at a center in Germany. Here he met 10-year-old Yousef — one of many child migrants making dangerous journeys without their parents — who occupied himself by drawing his own pictures while Morrison drew him. Yousef’s drawing of his friends playing football surrounded by tanks is included in the images that Morrison shows in the exhibition.Graphic novelist Karrie Fransman’s ‘infinite zoom’ animated film is inspired by the true stories of four Eritrean refugees who made the dangerous journey across Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya to Europe. The film takes you through a ‘time tunnel,’ where you move rapidly from your destroyed home in palm-studded subtropical lowlands to a cold, grey alien landscape in Europe, conveying the sorrow of displacement — only to then suffer the nightmare of being sent back to the very place you fled; a circle of suffering endured by those who fail to qualify for asylum.“Journeys Drawn” is a remarkable exhibition which really brings to life the personal stories of refugees. Nairne pointed out that the journeys are often not linear and include many stages of uncertainty and seemingly endless waiting.By focusing on the real lives of an individual or a small group, each illustrator transports the viewer into those lives. For a moment, they emerge from the ‘collective’ of refugees, and that brings home the fact that what happened to them could happen to anyone caught up in the vicious grip of war, famine, poverty and corruption.

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