First Lived Experience Conversations…

Last week I met with two former refugees who had gone through Nancy Callahan's hospitality training program and still work in the hospitality industry. One gentleman was from Afghanistan/Pakistan and the other from Myanmar (Rohingya). I met with them both together which turned out to be a bit of a mistake. I initially wanted to hear about their experiences navigating US and international immigration bureaucracies, paperwork, challenges they faced navigating this system and if they did it themselves or relied on other people to help them navigate these systems. It was a very eye opening discussion but I should have anticipated how this conversation could be something that in itself makes someone relive past traumas. I purposefully wasn't asking questions about why these two men had to flee their home countries as a lot of the training I was receiving for working with the children stressed that asking about why people had to flee can often trigger people into reliving past traumas. This "trauma informed" model of care assumes that participants have experienced trauma leaving their home countries and that as someone who is not a trained mental health professional it might not be in their best interest to spur those kinds of conversations. The journey after leaving one's home country is often another form of trauma and that's what I failed to take into account in this case. The gentleman from Afghanistan seemed very open to share his story (and his family of 9) and was able to do it without getting upset. The guy from Myanmar was quite the opposite. He's been in the US maybe a year or so and his journey is still very fresh in his mind. After leaving his country and transiting through several different countries by boat he ultimately landed on Christmas Island and was detained by Australian immigration and held on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea for 6 years. This was where his formal process of immigration began which included being beaten by guards, protesting his imprisonment with other detainees and speaking to hundreds of people (as he tells it) over the course of those years where people would arrive from various countries, agencies etc and all repeatedly ask him the same questions without giving him any notice that they were coming or even ask him permission to talk to him. His path through international immigration systems was wholly cruel and unusual punishment. I remember reading news articles about Manus Island and seeing some videos but it was barely a blip in the global news cycle here in the US. Ultimately this guy got a bit agitated as he worked himself up by recounting his story mostly unprompted. It made it hard to speak to both participants but I was able to have a basic conversation with each of them and plant the seed for a potential further meeting (separately next time). Both of them agreed to meet again expressed that they both very much wanted to. The meeting had gotten side tracked by the one fellow as he recounted his story and took over the conversation so the other guy from Afghanistan quietly texted Nancy Callahan to come in and politely interrupt so that the conversation didn't devolve further. He also had somewhere he wanted to go and he wasn't getting the opportunity to talk with me as much because the other guy had begun monopolizing the conversation. I can completely see how it all happened now. Ultimately I don't think it was a big problem for anyone but it did teach me a valuable lesson. I tried to ask some questions of them both that prompted them to think about what they might be getting out of working with me. I asked them "Why were they willing to talk with me and spend their time with me? Also, what if anything did they hope that talking with an artist/photographer might achieve for them? One responded he just wanted to help new refugees coming to America, here now at Heartland etc. He's very focused on the present. The other responded that he just doesn't want anyone to go through what he went through and that if there's any way he can say or do something to help ensure that was motivation enough. I've been thinking about this since last week. I'm going to message both of them to arrange second meetings shortly. I think there's something here and there was lots more we discussed regarding paperwork and such that I could tie in to other things I'm exploring at Heartland programs.

I've had several followup meetings with these two individuals and I'm going to describe those meetings here.  Also, I hadn't included their names as I wasn't sure how much info they wanted to share or if this would be an ongoing thing.  It now seems quite clear that both of them are interested in further meetings and collaboration with me on this project.  

Ateequllah, is the gentleman from Afghanistan/Pakistan I spoke of.  He's genuinely one of the nicest people I've ever met.  I've met with him three more times since out initial meeting in early January at Heartland Ravenswood.  The first of those three times was up on Devon street at Tahoori Sweets & Bakery.  I've photographed a couple businesses within a block of there for my Immigrant Owned work but haven't been up there in some time.  We talked about a lot of things but we were able to get into a more detailed conversation about what his journey was like, what the immigration process was like for him and how his family has found quite a measure of success here in the states as they are now purchasing their first home.  We discussed some of the things like how refugees get a bill for their plane tickets to the USA and have to start making repayment within months of arriving.  His journey was not nearly as traumatic as Nojumul (the guy from Myanmar) but there have certainly been challenges. 

We discussed the possibility of making some images and how we might incorporate some of the things we talked about into images.  I described examples of things that were coming to mind when he was recounting stories or describing his family's navigation of the immigration process.  There were things he was more open to and less open to.  For example he knew that there are members of his family who would not want to be involved in anything public that identified them where as he does not seem to have that concern. 

I've been particularly interested in government and international agency immigration paperwork and the underlying systems of immigration that govern the movement of people. How these systems of bureaucracy can be thought of as a means of control or deterrent for people to have freedom of movement seems to be popping back into my mind a lot.  When I talked to Ateequllah that day and mentioned these things he informed me that he does in fact have some of his paperwork and that he would look for it.

On our second individual meeting Ateequllah came down to Columbia College and I showed him my student debt work that was on display in the arcade gallery.  On that visit we had planned via text to do a simple portrait of him on a paper background.  He also agreed to let me scan his immigration documents which I would then redact out any personal information that could he doesn't want to share like addresses and ID numbers etc.  On our third individual meeting he came and sat with me while I scanned his documents and then left them with me to continue scanning as it was taking some time and he picked them up a couple days later.  He works downtown so these meetings at Columbia have been relatively easy for him and for myself.   I will put together in an image gallery as things come along further with his documents, portrait and an idea we've talked about for merging the two. 

Nojumul and I have met once more since our initial meeting in early January and we had a much more productive meeting by having the discussion one on one versus in a small group. He recounted some of the same stories but in greater detail of his journey leaving Myanmar (we haven't talked much about his time in Myanmar) and while some of the same stories of trauma came up he wasn't nearly as upset about it.  I get the feeling he has a hard time trusting people and that his initial response to people that want to hear from him is to test them and push them or challenge them.  He seems to have let this go quite a bit and we had some good conversation about my fellowship and what might an image look like that we could make together.  Unlike Ateequllah he has none of his paperwork for his immigration process and I don't think that the image Ateequllah and I are considering would be as appropriate for Nojumul in some ways.  He seems still stuck in a form of limbo.  He came here alone unlike Ateequllah who came with a family of 8 siblings and his mother.  While like Ateequllah he has garnered some measure of success working here in the US he is in fact sending a large portion of his money back to Bangladesh where his family is living as displaced people.  It seems like there is a large amount of pressure on him to provide for his family even after everything he went through on his journey.  We talked about how he doesn't really go out to do fun things, meet people and has little dating life.  After his bills here and sending money to family back in Bangladesh there isn't much left over for going out let alone providing for a family here.  He sounds quite lonely and that his journey has been one of such solitude really stuck with me from this past conversation.  We've talked about doing a photo out near lake Michigan since many significant spans of his journey involved transiting, being close to or surrounded by large bodies of water.  Nojumul was suggesting he could wear an outfit like the one he was wearing when he first got on a boat and left home.  He has a surprising memory for dates and certain specific details and I'm thinking that these details mean a lot to him.  In the meantime he's asked me to inform him when there are parties or gatherings where he might attend and maybe meet some ladies and while I'm not generally a party kind of guy I am trying to think of things I can invite him to so he can get out more.  We are planning to do some kind of photo in March when there's more sun and it's not so cold but are keeping in touch via text in the meantime.   


4 thoughts on “First Lived Experience Conversations…”

  1. This is really powerful.
    1. From the perspective of the fellowship, it is exactly the kind of experience and insight that such proximity alone might provide an individual. It speaks to why this is such a unique opportunity, why the nuance you get to explore is so profound for the larger conversation and awareness, and how your experience is as integral to the work as any images you produce.
    2. From the perspective of expanding our awareness beyond the headlines and trite tweets, the profundity of your realization as evidenced in the comment “The journey after leaving one’s home country is often another form of trauma and that’s what I failed to take into account” is again truly powerful. So many people only focus on the hardship that drives someone to leave or the “gift” of being given refuge. Yes, there have been some who have documented the rough conditions refugees go through, but rarely do people focus on the PROCESS as one of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

    I was really struck by your comment (as he relayed to you) “…all repeatedly ask him the same questions without giving him any notice that they were coming or even ask him permission to talk to him.” Imagine how frustrated we as Americans get when we’re asked the same question twice by any government agency, let alone asked over and over again to repeat TO TOTAL STRANGERS the most difficult and trying experiences of our life.

    Last, what a powerful testament to the two individuals’ agency and purpose in wanting to be able to have an impact on the lives of others! This is an experience you are opening up for these two men (and others) well beyond any image you make!

    Finally, the experience navigating this difficult situation happens for each fellow at some point and I just know how unsettling it must have been. Bravo for getting through it and for sticking with the tough spots!

  2. Part II: you are getting a firsthand education about what it means to be trauma-informed, to actually put concern for human dignity into practice, and to uphold the power of someone’s agency (to speak, to participate, to contribute…or not). It strikes me that this is one of the most profound aspects of the work of my co-workers across Heartland that I’ve had the benefit of witnessing. Even asking for permission is a powerful act. And now it is something you can not only do but be explicit about (not that you don’t already ask for permission — I realize you are quite practiced in photographing human subjects).

  3. I’ve got an update for this part of my fellowship meeting with these two guys. Newer sections will be separated lower down in the post by a horizontal line. Comments will be continuous below all of the written posts.

    • I’m always struck by your insights and the understanding that comes from your encounters. I appreciate what amounts to a de-aggregation of the refugee experience. I think too often we talk about these big issues as if the people we are talking about (refugees, people who are homeless, immigrants, survivors of gun violence, etc.) as if they are a monolith instead the nuanced, unique, individual stories that they are. I’m eager to see how this may (or may not) come out in your work and storytelling.

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