THE SILENT REFUGEES
2015, Photography and Digital Techniques
A series representing the stories of Jewish refugees from MENASA countries. Since 1948, over 850,000 Jews have been expelled from countries across the MENASA region. Millennia-old communities were erased in the space of one generation. Lives uprooted and families spread across continents, these refugees were forced to abandon their previous lives and build new ones. The effects of this mass expulsion on the refugees, their descendants and the course of history as a whole are incalculable.
This project is an outgrowth of the realization on the part of the artist that features of her Syrian community, comprised entirely of these refugees and their descendants, are in fact quite unique and unusual. Namely, the fact that nobody owns any family heirlooms, or that the mother tongue of so many members of this NY based community is not English, but Arabic.
Nine individuals from six MENASA countries were interviewed about their forced migration experiences. The artworks created from these interviews contrast the past and current lives of each person. The "past" photographs are of the few (or sometimes singular) objects the person was able to bring with them after leaving their origin country. Over the image is a list of the objects, places and people they left behind. The counterpart "current" photographs do the same, illustrating important parts of the person's life as it is now. For most of these people, this was the first time that they publicly shared details of their escape and resettlement stories. Their narratives display an intense resilience and positive outlook on life despite what they had been through. The artworks share the stories while celebrating the ability of these people to move on and rebuild.
Nira spent years separated from her family as they made their way from Iran to Israel. They sold most of their belongings and sent several of their 9 children ahead of the parents in an effort to rescue them from the threat of kidnapping and forced conversions, a widespread problem in their dwindling community.
Menahem became a refugee at age 13 after worsening conditions for Jews in Yemen (murder, kidnapping and forced conversions) forced him to remain in the US without his family. He has a scar on his face from being stoned playing in Yemen as a child, and it serves as a daily reminder for him about why his work to rescue the Jews left in Yemen is so important. This photograph of his home is the only object he has from his life before exile.
Since the age of 13 Menahem has had to live on his own and provide for himself. Despite never having had a secular education until age 17, he taught himself two languages and graduated High School on time to go to University. He is currently pursuing his degree in Manhattan while working with the State Department, Jewish Agency, and Israeli Government in order to extract and rescue the last remaining Jews in Yemen-- including his own family, who were brought to Israel in March 2016.
Sarah was expelled from Egypt in 1957 along with her husband and four small children. The family received notice and had to leave within a week, leaving behind most of their belongings. She was able to smuggle out her engagement ring (pictured) in a jar of cream. They also managed to bring some coins by sewing them into the childrens’ clothing. Everything else was confiscated by the government or stolen by neighbors.
The family was stateless, not having been issued Egyptian passports because they were Jews. The US would only grant them student visas, which made it difficult to work to support themselves. Sarah endured much hardship and humiliation as she struggled to rebuild her life. She succeeded in raising a large family and later moved to Israel.
Exiled from Cairo and cut off from her entire family and community, Irene's family lived as secret Jews for 13 years to protect themselves from antisemitism in France. She wasn't allowed to make friends or bring people to the house; when people did come, the family hid their Jewish objects.
Irene’s family was given three days' notice to vacate their newly furnished home in Cairo. They did not take a single belonging with them, and their extended family was then spread across three continents. Irene was in the womb at the time and was thus robbed of her would-have-been life. Instead of an open-door environment full of warmth and closeness with family, she was raised alone in Marseilles, France.
Edward lived the first 22 years of his life separated from half of his family, who managed to escape Syria and its restrictions on Jewish movement years before his own migration. Restrictions on Jews made life for the continually shrinking community very difficult; many people were arrested, abducted, tortured and even killed Edward brought his Oud and a wristwatch with him, which he never takes off (pictured).
Edward was allowed only two suitcases and had to rebuild his life upon arrival in New York. He is grateful that he was young enough at the time to do so, but notes that for people like his father, who had wanted to emigrate in their 20’s but were held hostage until their late 60’s, their lives were in effect stolen twice.
Lea's family fled Lebanon on a smuggler's boat to Cyprus during the civil war. Her parents, siblings, and grandparents were only able to take two suitcases between all of them for their belongings. Their mementos were lost when a bomb hit their home and destroyed her mother's bedroom. The family subsisted on a jar of truffles in oil for weeks while awaiting their chance to escape.
Lea worked to help settle other refugees during the 1990s in Brooklyn, helping with translation services and placing their children in school. She volunteers weekly at Eishel Shabbat, a group that provides food to needy families. She says that after losing everything she had, she learned not to become attached to objects and to regard material things as unimportant.
Batia left Syria without her parents at the age of 12. She, her brother and grandmother were granted temporary exit visas under the ruse that her grandmother would need someone to care for her (Batia) and that the women would need a chaperone (her brother). A big part of her former life was hiding: keeping one’s identity private, not revealing anything voluntarily, in order to avoid harassment as a Jewish person. Vestiges of this still follow her around in her current life.
Batia remembers hiding her lack of proper clothing under her coat until others stepped in to buy them for her. In her current life, she takes pride in being able to afford to choose her own clothing. It’s a simple, everyday right she doesn’t take for granted.