When refugees flee their homes, they leave everything behind: clothes, personal affects, toys… and of course, photographs. Photographs are manifestations of a family’s identity, unity and memory – and so their loss can often outweigh any material losses.
With this in mind, Emma McCarthy (Marketing and Communications Manager) and Meredith Stuebe (Policy and Funding Officer) from the Liverpool Migrant Resource Centre (MRC) decided that for Refugee Week in June this year they would put together an exhibition of family portraits. The subjects were a selection of refugee families with diverse backgrounds and stories. The success of the exhibition and the richness of the experience led them to pursue a follow-on project – a book – undertaken in cooperation with the Melkite Catholic Welfare Association.
Courageous Journeys imitates a family photo album and profiles 14 refugee families. Each family has their own section which includes several black and white professionally photographed portraits and a number of colour snapshots taken by the families themselves with a disposable camera provided. Asked about this, Ms McCarthy explains that the black and white professional photos are more formal and posed, while “the family-taken photographs are more full of life, they’re in a natural environment… it is really about life and celebrating new life and a new country…it’s celebrating the colours the families have in their new life in Australia.”
There is very little text in the book – no bio’s, no background – just very brief, simple answers to the same four questions asked of each family: Where has your family come from? How long has your family been living in Australia? What are your family’s hopes for the future? What is your family most proud of?
The last two questions, of course, evince the most inspiring and moving responses, many of which circle around the same themes. Hopes for the future almost invariably revolve around education and better lives for the children. What most are proud of is their resilience and being settled in a promising new country.
Ms McCarthy explains that the book is intended to be optimistic and look towards the future, which is why it hasn’t included any biographical text.
“A lot of people want to know the really bad stuff because they want to put that ‘bad story coming good’ angle on it… But we really wanted to have a positive focus and not have to ask families to recount what they’ve been through. They already do that too much.”
There were some challenges, the obvious one being the language barrier. Interpreters were used for crucial exchange of information, but otherwise it came down to improvised sign language and Ms McCarthy’s very limited Arabic, butchered further by a thick Irish accent.
“I’d make phone calls and try and speak and they would be laughing their heads off!” she recounts.
Trust was another issue, with some families having endured intense surveillance in their homelands. However, once all obstacles were surmounted, the atmosphere was one of warmth, enthusiasm and fun. The book launch was testament to that, with the families visibly excited, joking with each other and effusing pride and gratitude.
The photographs in the book are heartwarming, funny, stylish, sensitive, quirky and, most importantly, real. They are a reminder that the people in the frames are not meaningless statistics, but are humans with relationships, personalities, thoughts, sentiments and ambitions. People who have the same potential as anyone else, given the same opportunities.
It is hoped that proceeds from sales of the book will help fund the project again next year. (RB)
For more information on Liverpool Migrant Resource Centre go to www.lmrc.org.au
For information on obtaining a copy of Courageous Journeys: A Family Portrait contact Meredith at Liverpool MRC on ph: (02) 8778 1200
BY RITA BRATOVICH