“We don’t have the option to go home, we lost everything!” —Mohammed Yamma, from Afghanistan
Can art provide a constructive and authentic response to the refugee crisis? In response to this well-trodden question, David Evans Berry, a photographer from Wales, travelled to Lesbos and Athens earlier this year to capture the ongoing crisis and what happens to the people left stranded in a no man’s land.
Taking time to hear the stories of those who had fled to Greece, and keeping the humanity of his subjects as his guiding motivation, David was intent on avoiding any imagery that might aestheticize human suffering. The result is The Orange Tree, a moving portfolio—showing what every day life was like in the Greek camps for the men, women, and children who had to endure them—shot, David says, with the belief that, “Art can change perspective: I wanted to avoid the dominant narrative of pity, to celebrate a shared humanity. Many major socio-political problems in our world come about because of people trying to create the idea of ‘the Other.’ I don’t want to neglect the ability of art to change society for the better.”
David and his brother Siôn had friends from the UK who were volunteering to help run part of a makeshift security operation in Athens where the brothers helped out for a few days when they first arrived. The brothers continued to volunteer, doing what they could, while they documented the situation with interviews from the refugees, volunteers, and islanders, in Siôn’s short film also titled The Orange Tree.
In the film we see refugees in Lesbos stuck behind barb wire fences of holding camps appealing, “We come to Europe for a free life, we are not criminals... for why the jail?” They shout all the countries they have come from: Afghanistan (the Afghani diaspora being the largest in the world), Syria (there are now no hospitals left in Aleppo, where bombs and chlorine gas fall daily), Pakistan, Iran—all the places we hear about on the news, places that until very recently had been confined to our, Europeans’, TV screens.
In one day in October last year over 12,000 refugees arrived on Lesbos. You could recognize “the north coast of Lesbos from space, because of the red, and the red was life jackets,” recalled one volunteer in the film.
The news is saturated with stories of “refugees” and “immigrants”— dehumanizing labels that have allowed many people to disconnect from the suffering of those fleeing for their lives. The innate emotional response to help—a response borne from a sense of understanding, and so, unity—is suppressed once people are lumped into an inanimate, amorphous mass of “refugees” or “immigrants.” Nevertheless, there are people out there trying to help each other, displaying the sort of humanity you might hope.
In his photographs, David made a conscious decision to focus on the refugees and the Greek landscape absorbing them; but for their film he and Siôn interviewed Erik and Philipa Kempson, who have lived on the island for over 16 years and started rescuing people from boats in 2015. Erik described the escalating situation as refugees made the passage from Turkey to Lesbos:
In the beginning they used to row in small little boats and it used to take them the best part of ten hours or something, maybe more, and normally ten guys at a time in a boat. But towards the end of 2014 boats started getting engines and were getting a lot bigger—you could have 60 to 70 people on a boat and we noticed that women and babies and children started coming…
At Piraeus Harbor, a short train ride from Athens’ busy city center, Persian music plays while boys dance, and children giggle as they push each other in discarded trolleys. But there are also thousands of tents and crowds of refugees cramming the waterfront. Unfortunately, the crisis is a little more complex than saving people’s lives at sea: the refugees need to be allowed to continue their lives once they make it to shore. They face a very uncertain future: many in the camps wait to find out if they will be deported back to Turkey like so many others before them. “We hear Europe saying on TV, ‘We are defender of human rights’—what human rights? What kind of human rights are here?” Mohammed Yamma asks.
Mohammed was studying at university in Afghanistan until he was forced to flee in 2015, when the violence there left him with no other option. Before reaching Greece, Mohammed travelled on foot for nine days from Afghanistan, through Pakistan and Iran, to Turkey. In Turkey Mohammed was kidnapped by the people smugglers who had promised him safe passage, and held prisoner in a house “like a jail” for one month and three days until he was able to come up with more money. Mohammed says that because of Europe’s closed borders he has been left with no option but to “play the game” of the people smugglers. When he was finally put on a boat to Greece, he was told there would be a total of 34 refugees on it, but in reality, “it was more than 70 passengers. There wasn't an option to go back… But when we went there, they told us, ‘Go sit in that boat. I don’t care if you die. I don't care if the police arrest you. I don't care. I get value for my money, I don't care about your life’—like this.”
By April 2016, Mohammed was one of thousands trapped in the makeshift harbor camp.
Life and time may seem to freeze for those stranded in the camps, but hair continues to grow, which is why Sami—a professional hairdresser and singer—decided to set up a barbershop in a small wooden shed on site. Sami is originally from Damascus: “Syria will keep in my mind. I will never forget breakfast at the morning, I will never forget the smell of jasmine.” “In search of safety,” he travelled from Syria, via Turkey, to Greece on a crossing known among refugees as the “journey of death.” Though the Greek government, and many other European governments, have been regularly lambasted for their lack of humanity and “acting shamefully slow” in the words of the European council, Sami points out that on the ground, people are trying: “Greek people are wonderful people and deal with us with goodness and humanity; but we were in a very bad situation… I thank Greece for what they offer us, and I thank the Greek people for their humanity.“
Sajad and Eajaz Hanifi
Sajad and Eajaz Hanifi are brothers from Afghanistan who travelled to Greece with their mother and their elderly, diabetic grandmother. In The Orange Tree, Sajad tells us matter-of-factly that their father was killed by the Taliban five years ago, “They killed him… my father’s died.” With great maturity, Eajaz explains why they’re here, what they hope for from their future, “We want to study… we are coming here to learn more from the Europe[an] countries.”
Fatima Yusef and Leila Brahim
Mother and daughter Leila Brahim and Fatima Yusef arrived in Greece fleeing the ongoing war in Syria. Fatima became friends with David’s volunteer friend Becca Dalby Bowler, who was working with Fatima and other refugees in a teenagers and young women’s group at the camp in Piraeus Harbour, Athens.
Mohammed Hannif used to be employed as personal security for the US embassy in Afghanistan. “I like Afghanistan, Afghanistan is my country, it’s my heart… I come from my country because I want just a safe location for me, for my family.”
In order to get to a safe location, Mohammed and his family travelled in a taxi filled with fifteen people: five in the boot, and eight people in the backseat. He and his family then had to cross the mountain border between Iran and Turkey, at night on foot—the journey took nine hours through one meter of snow.
Mohammed had been to a couple of refugee camps in Greece, travelling to Idomeni, on the Greece/Macedonian border. But there was no food or medical facilities, so he decided to return to Athens with his family, where they slept in a tent by the harborside.
As Brexit showed, fear of immigration is rampant in the public imagination, with fears of the financial tax on the state standing in for a more visceral reaction to multiculturalism. Mohammed’s case is not helped by the fact that Afghans are often classified as “economic migrants,” a classification that allows for deportation from the EU. He was clearly aware of this connotation when he explained his situation, ”I don’t have problems for money or finances. I have problems with attacks, explosions, war... Daesh, Al-Qaeda, Taliban.”
There might be a temptation for artists not to engage directly with highly sensitive subjects for fear of trivializing suffering; but in an event that will be looked back on as a pivotal, and ultimately transformative moment in our collective history, it is important to remember that we are still experiencing, and therefore influencing, the outcome now. The temptation for artists to turn a blind eye, would probably be a worse one: if artists don’t respond to events like this then the events, and the human beings involved in them, are subject to the transience of news cycles.
Art has long been used as means of conveying the complexities of the human experience, the point of which is: imagine if it were you. By giving his images context, and his subjects and collaborators the opportunity to be more than subtext, David Evans Berry attempts to generate empathy, instead of sympathy. War and geopolitical conflicts cause ordinary people to rise to extraordinary challenges—but we shouldn't forget that they are still ordinary people just looking for a home. Taking the time to understand firsthand the day-to-day reality of the situation thousands are in, photographers like David record and honor that lived experience, instead of glamorizing or glorifying (or even reenacting, as in Ai Weiwei’s most notorious response) the most traumatic moments of the refugees.
Esther Camis, a Proactiva volunteer lifeguard from Spain told David and Siôn: “They know that everything is difficult, but they keep trying to come. [One man] told me, ‘I will sleep in the mud, I will sleep in the ground, I don’t care but I have to come—I will die over there [in Syria].’ He was smoking a cigarette, very calm and very happy, but I was like, what a brave man.’’
Jade Angeles Fitton is a writer currently based in Devon. You can find her work at trippingoverwhippets.
(Note: Names of subjects have been included where they have been shared with the photographer. All images: Courtesy of David Evans Berry)
Tags: refugee crisis Lesbos photo essay David Evans Berry Athens portraiture, photography
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