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In U.N. Art Exhibition, Syrian Artist Unpacks Refugees' Baggage


When families flee war, they leave so much of their lives behind. An art exhibition at the U.N. in New York tries to capture that. It features small models of abandoned places and the suitcases of refugees. This project is called "Unpacked: Refugee Baggage." NPR's Deborah Amos has the story.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The scenes are harrowing and all too familiar here - a scorched car covered in dust, tangled electrical wires spilling out of a gutted apartment, a bedroom exposed by a bomb where a busted dresser sits on broken toys. Even more striking - because it's presented in miniature - scale models of 10 homes in war zones that families were forced to flee. Syrian artist Mohamad Hafez created the three-dimensional detailed replicas, but in the exhibit, he left out one word that defines these families.

MOHAMAD HAFEZ: So if you look at this exhibit, there isn't the word refugee anywhere on the wall.

AMOS: Because it's now seen as a bad word.

HAFEZ: That's right. It's really nonsense what's happening. It's easier to do the fearmongering against the powerless people.

AMOS: These labels don't define us, says Hafez, who came to the U.S. 14 years ago and now works as an architect based in New Haven, Conn., where he designs glass skyscrapers. In this exhibit, he was drawn to the imagery of baggage, emotional and physical, he says, to humanize those who fled war zones to build a new life.

HAFEZ: And so this is literally what you see - physical baggage opened up and the guts of it spilling out, few feet off the wall, showing you their stories.


AHMED BADR: My name is Ahmed Badr. I'm a writer and former refugee from Iraq.

AMOS: Twenty-year-old Ahmed Badr recorded the stories for the project. He interviewed the families from Afghanistan, the Congo, Syria, Iraq and Sudan. He included his own story. In 2006, in the middle of the night, a missile tore his Baghdad home in half. He was 7 years old.


BADR: It was a dream, yeah.


BADR: Yeah, a nightmare, yeah. And I remember going back and seeing the chaos and destruction. My parents were civil engineers in Baghdad for 22 years before that fateful day.

AMOS: The exhibition also displays donated suitcases, old and battered with stamps faded from travel long ago. For example, Jewish families provided suitcases of their grandparents who escaped persecution in Europe, but when they arrived in the U.S., faced the same xenophobia that refugees and immigrants face today, says Hafez.

HAFEZ: So history tends to repeat itself, and I try to raise awareness to not repeat the pushback and the xenophobia against refugees.

AMOS: It's a challenge, he acknowledges, as refugee resettlement has slowed to a trickle under the Trump administration.

HAFEZ: I've lived in America more adult years than anywhere else in the globe. I am very invested in painting a picture of fellow immigrants, refugees, Muslim Americans, that are giving back to this host community. They are an essential part of society.

AMOS: Hafez plans to tour this project across the country. He's already connected to refugees who've resume professional careers, bought houses, sent kids to college, became American citizens. Everyone goes through hardships, he says. It's not how the story ends. Deborah Amos, NPR News, New York.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we say Ahmed Badr is 20 years old. He's 19 years old.]

(SOUNDBITE OF OMAR BASHIR'S "THANKS TO MY MASTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: December 26, 2017 at 12:00 AM EST
In this story, we say Ahmed Badr is 20 years old. He's 19 years old.
Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.