From the elementary school shooting in Connecticutand continued protests in Egypt to Syrian refugees in Turkey and the Pope’s first tweet, TIME presents the best images of the week.
Bewildered, exhausted, displaced and lost in their own thoughts, the subjects in Gabriele Stabile’s photographs have traveled far and suffered greatly. Newly arrived refugees in the United States, they spend their first night in America in the temporary shelter of an airport hotel. Many of them endure torturous delays in their native lands—often waiting years in makeshift camps before finally gaining entry to America and an opportunity to build a new life. Once on American soil, these refugees from war, famine, religious persecution and every other imaginable human-made and natural calamity will spend a single night — 10 to 12 hours — at the hotel before they continue their journey, settling in far-flung destinations across the 50 states. Ukrainians to California, Africans to Fargo — the decisions made by the resettlement agencies are often based on existing communities that can offer support and aid in the acclimation of the new arrivals.
The Italian-born Stabile, now based in New York, covered five airports of entry for his project — Newark, JFK, Miami, Chicago’s O’Hare and Los Angeles International — and concentrated on documenting the immediate experiences of the new arrivals to a new world.
“I found myself focused on the gateway from their past,” Stabile says. “I used to say they live between uncertainties. One is their past, which they had to abandon, and the other is their future, because they don’t know what is going on, what will happen in America, or what it is going to be like.”
“It’s a suspended reality,” Stabile explains, “where you have to suspend your belief, too. You see an African family of ten people spending all night in the hallways of the hotel and refusing to get into their own rooms to sleep because they’re afraid that the officials are going to forget them — forget about them and leave them there.”
Stabile finds the situations close to “unphotographable.” Arriving in the dead of night, bathed in darkness, the refugees arrive at hotels with generic, fireproof furniture and ugly, flowery wallpaper — a surreal environment for a traumatized traveler to face.
These conditions aid, rather than disrupt, Stabile’s appropriately dark, atmospheric aesthetic. His layered compositions (and reflections) often convey the refugees’ disorientation. In other photographs, isolated refugees seem to emerge from the shadows of their unfamiliar surroundings, physically and mentally displaced and lost in their own thoughts. The mix of emotions and sense of shock are almost palpable.
Stabile and his subjects, meanwhile, appear to have understood one another through his camera. “I was hiding a bit behind it and they were kind enough not to [hide from it]. Some of the people didn’t want to be photographed but mostly they were open.”
He connected with the refugees not only through the lens but through simple acts of kindness, like lending his cell phone so they could call their loved ones and friends back home to let them know they had safely arrived.
As the refugees continued their journeys to their resettlement communities, Stabile maintained contact, becoming friends with some and receiving random calls from others.
“There’s a family in Mobile, Alabama. Every year, on the anniversary of their arrival, they call me,” Stabile says, “because I was the first western guy to show interest in their story and lent them my phone. They remembered that as an act of kindness. The guy wants me to talk to his seven daughters and wife and we don’t even speak the same language!”
A letter from a young refugee named Samira, meanwhile, struck Stabile deeply enough to alter the course, and expand the scope, of his entire project. After meeting her upon her arrival in Newark, he had photographed Samira and her family in Minneapolis — a location he visited that was not a port of entry, but rather a destination for refugees. After he had largely lost touch with the family, Samira wrote Stabile a letter that he characterizes as “very tough, accusing me of disappearing from their lives after [initially] showing interest.”
This recognition finally led Stabile to expand the refugee project to tackle the larger and, in many ways, far more emotionally fraught story of resettlement — how refugees affect the America is which they now live, and how America has affected (and continues to affect) them. This journey, his journey, is something that, Stabile says, all photographers eventually end up shooting: getting lost in America.
Stabile’s Refugee Hotel is the first photo book published by Voices of Witness. The book is structured into three distinct chapters — two photographic and one written. The first is an impressionistic documentation of the refugees’ first night in the hotel. The second chapter, written by co-author Juliette Linderman, is a series of first-hand accounts and oral histories. The testimonies are stark and full of yearning to rebuild lives beset by adversity and delayed by circumstance and bureaucracy. The third chapter focuses on their resettlement to the smaller communities of America.
The photographic bodies of work are separated by four years and aesthetically are two distinct entities. The first was mostly shot in color Kodachrome and the second with black and white film. The sections were shot during two different periods of Stabile’s own life, between 2007 and 2012 — the first as a young photographer recently arrived in the U.S. and the second as a permanent resident and father of two.
The project represents a serious amount of investigative journalism, with organizations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) providing tremendous help in tracking down the refugees.
In the second half of the project, Stablile concentrated on the smaller towns the refugees were dispersed to — towns that weren’t as ethnically diverse as the larger metropolitan areas the refugees first arrived in. The second chapter accentuates the paradox of American culture and reinforces the surreal nature of their first nights here.
“The actuality is that there are African people living in Fargo, North Dakota — lost in the fog of an environment in which all you see after a while are roads and strip malls and little towns. These people are trying — scrambling — to make it work in that environment, which is totally and unbelievably different from what they’re ready to approach,” Stabile says.
Many of these resettlement programs are successful. There’s a road map to becoming an American, and it’s an intricate plot. But it does work, especially with young refugees, because they are able to adjust more easily.
Stabile notes: “We live in a very controlled environment in which you’re supposed to take steps to improve — get a better job, put together your retirement money, send your kids to college and have a nice car, for example. That’s what America is about. Not only do many of the refugees not share these values — some even find them offensive. Change is a big undertaking for people who are in their forties and fifties. So they hang onto their beliefs, their ways of doing things.”
Although some share in the ideal of the American dream, others Stabile visited in Mobile, Alabama, for example, were practicing polygamy in the accepted tradition of their culture — a tradition where it is not only recommended to have more than one wife, but where it’s permissible to buy and sell women.
But this is not always what it seems.
“One man waited all night until his wife returned from a trip from Dallas. He was crying because he was finally united with his wife after maybe three days. So they meet and hold each others’ hands and start praying to God that they were actually together again. And this is a guy who bought this woman from a farmer next door. You realize that these are structures we impose on ourselves — of the way our society works. What matters is what you feel, how you relate to your environment and to the people that surround you — but if you think about it, this is happening under the radar in Alabama. Are these guys actually Americans now? They’ve lived here five years.”
“Some of them have these two voices in them. For example, they want their customs to survive, you know, moving to America — they’re afraid they’re going to lose their identities by losing their ways. They are farmers who will never farm again, architects that will never design another building. They find themselves cleaning restrooms at the country club, doing maintenance jobs or working as car mechanics.”
“One thing that I think was common to all of these ethnicities, to all of these experiences, all of these stories, was that misery, once you experience it, never really goes away. You carry it with you.”
Gabriele Stabile is an Italian photographed based in New York. Refugee Hotel, published by Voice of Witness, is his first book.
Voice of Witness is a non-profit organization that uses oral history to illuminate contemporary human rights crises in the U.S. and around the world. Founded by author Dave Eggers and physician/human rights scholar Lola Vollen, Voice of Witness publishes a book series that depicts human rights injustices through the stories of the men and women who experience them.
Editor’s note: The people in the story have been photographed with their faces covered and their names have been changed for security concerns. For the same reason, the exact locations in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon where the interviews took place have been kept hidden.
They were five, their faces covered with masks. They broke into the house and went upstairs. Few minutes later, they came down with my son Ali, handcuffed. linkwheel . They brought him away with no explanation. ‘Keep your mouth shut, or we will kill you’ was the only thing they told me.
Sitting on the porch of her new house in the Bekaa Valley, the Eastern Lebanese region bordering with Syria, Somaya struggles to hold back tears while recounting the last time she saw her son alive. Three days after his arrest, Ali’s corpse was found in a ditch near Talbiseh, a small village close to the Syrian city of Homs. He had eleven gunshot wounds in the stomach, the left arm was broken and both kneecaps had been removed, she says. Following her son’s death eight months ago, Somaya moved to Lebanon, where she is trying to cope with the nostalgia of her beloved country and the desperation of a mother that cannot get peace. Ali was a simple taxi driverhe didn’t like politics,” she says. “During the protests against the regime he used to stay at home because he didn’t want to run into troubles. Since his death, I pray to God every day to rid us of Assad.
Somaya’s story is not unique. Since the start of the revolution against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, more than one hundred thousand civilians (at least 114, 955 according to UN agencies) have taken shelter in Lebanon. According to the UNHCR, the majority are children and women. Most of them are housewives, but there are also students, teachers, retirees and widows. In order to flee from a revolution that has slowly escalated in a full-scale civil war, many have crossed the border illegally, defying the bullets of the security forces to save the lives of their children. Today, they live scattered between the Northern city of Tripoli and the myriad of small villages along the Syrian border. This war is a heavy burden on our shoulders. Many of us have lost husbands and sons, and now have to take care of their families on our own, explains 27-year-old Rasha, who fled the village of Soran on March 1 and is now hosted with her family in a stark two-room flat in the Bekaa.
Like her, tens of thousands of Syrian refugees (more than 31,095 according to the UNHCR) are still unregistered and live in desperate situations. Hosted in basements, farm sheds or tents, they survive thanks to the rare food rations delivered by local NGOs. The Lebanese government, which never signed the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees and does not have a specific legislation to deal with them, has so far refused to set up proper refugee camps for Syrians, out of fear that they might be infiltrated by armed groups and rebels, as was the case with the Palestinian ones in Lebanon during the 70s.
Many of the women refugees in Lebanon live halfway between prisoner and ghost, trying to avoid contacts with the local population for fear of being caught by the agents of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia and political party allied with Assad that constantly scours the country for dissidents. Every time my husband is late at night, I become hysterical, says Samira, 28, her dark, expressive eyes gleaming on her olive skin. Until six months ago she used to live in Hama with her four kids, the eldest of whom is only 11. Her husband, an opposition supporter, had already fled to Lebanon months ahead. During her lonely nights when Hama was bombed by the regime forces, Samira’s only dream was to rejoin him on the other side of the border. One night, the long-awaited phone call finally reached her. The following morning, she made an 80-kilometer trip that lasted for 13, interminable hours, during which Samira had to change four cars and pay $400 to bribe the Syrian soldiers manning the checkpoints all the way to the border. Today, Samira and her family live in the outskirts of Tripoli, but their problems are far from over. The stairs of the dilapidated building they live in are filled with pools of water and piles of garbage, while their balcony overlooks a rubbish dump. The monthly rent of $100 is a prohibitive price for her husband, who is struggling to find a job in Lebanon and is quickly running out of money. We don’t know how to pay the next rent, she says, before busting into a flood of tears.
The families who managed to reach Tripoli are the luckiest ones. Predominantly inhabited by Sunnis, the city has become the main stronghold of the Syrian opposition in Lebanon. There, refugees can enjoy proper health services and a relative security, but in the Bekaa valley, the situation is totally different. Divided among Shia, Sunnis and Christians, the region has been the theater of several raids carried out by the Syrian Army, as well as arrests and kidnappings of Syrian political activists and opponents of the regime. Hezbollah controls much of the region, and gives a hard time to refugees and the people who are helping them.
Though grateful for their safety, refugees still yearn to return to their own lives and homes. Mona, a 28-year-old refugee who escaped from al-Qusayr together with her husband and two young sons, now stays in the house of a host family all day long watching television with the kids. But the Arabic teacher has not lost the hope of going back to Syria to start teaching again. Too much blood has been spilled for freedom, she says. If the revolution succeeds, I hope the next generations will not spoil its fruits. This is the message I would like to send to my pupils.
Mona is not the only one missing school: 16-year-old Zaynab comes from the neighborhood of Al-Khaldeeye, one of the opposition strongholds in Homs. Until last January, she was the best in her class. But Zaynab’s dream of becoming a doctor was abruptly put to an end when she was forced to quit school after some soldiers kidnapped, raped and killed three of her schoolmates. Zaynab now lives in Tripoli with her father, brother and a mentally-challenged sister she has to look after. When she receives food from charity organizations, she has to sell part of it to buy her medicines. Despite the hard times she is going through, her faith in the future is still intact. I was expecting the revolution to be brief and successful,” she says. But I am still hopeful. Assad will fall soon, and we will be able to go back to Syria victorious.
Her optimism is not shared by other refugees, who are feeling the burden of the never ending clashes, deaths and deprivations. I don’t know how this war will endwe cannot even understand who is fighting whom anymore, complains Badia, a 51-year-old woman who came to Lebanon to cure her daughter who suffered brain damages during a raid of the security forces in their house in Bab Drieb, Homs. If this is the revolution, if it means that I am not able to go out of my house to buy a piece of breadthen I don’t want it. Or, as Rasha, the young Syrian girl from Soran, puts it: It doesn’t matter who wins this warSyria women don’t have rights from the day they are born. As a Syrian woman, I don’t know what freedom means.
Matilde Gattoni is a photographer based in Dubai and Lebanon. Her work often focuses on issues related to water around the world.
Matteo Fagotto is a 33-year-old freelance Italian journalist based in Dubai. He focuses on African and Middle Eastern issues through reportage and feature stories.
In December 2011 Robin Hammond, then a neighbor of mine in Cape Town, arrived in Zimbabwe for what he’d planned as his longest trip yet to a country, and a story, he knew well – several months documenting that country’s decline. There are worse places in Africa and there are plenty of uplifting stories to be had in Zimbabwe. But in the context of the stunning progress Zimbabwe achieved in its first decade of independence, its collapse over the next two is nonetheless remarkable – and the main reason Robin has covered the country so extensively since 2007. “There are very few countries that have fallen as far as fast as Zimbabwe,” says Robin. “These are educated people with high expectations who are now living in really extreme poverty.”
For months, living on a grant from the Carmignac Foundation, Robin worked his way across the country, getting to know Zimbabweans, living with them, sharing their lives. He discovered a hidden urban poverty that most journalists, myself included, have missed. “Robert Mugabe’s only been screwing it up for 20 years, so there are still some half-decent roads and buildings,” says Robin. “But you get into some of these places and they’re vertical city slums: no power, no water, no jobs. And the atmosphere. I’ve been to Congo and Somalia and all those kinds of places but I don’t think I’ve seen people as scared as the people in Zimbabwe.”
As Robin discovered, there was good reason to fear. In March, as he photographed a farm in the east of the country that had been seized by the regime, he was arrested and held overnight. A few weeks later in mid-April, he was arrested a second time as he tried to take pictures of Zimbabwean refugees crossing the Limpopo River into South Africa. In 2007 I did five days in a Zimbabwean prison in the same part of the country. Robin was held for four weeks. Most of his time was spent in a five-meter-by-10-meter cell with 37 other inmates. The prisoners had a concrete floor to sleep on, blankets infested with lice as their only covering, one toilet between 250 and, for food, slop infested with weevils. Many of his fellow prisoners had been inside for years. Eventually, Robin was deported. “They did a pretty good job of making me feel afraid,” he says.
After arriving in London, then relocating to Paris, Robin began assembling his work. What emerges in these stunning, fearful pictures, now being published in a book and shown at an exhibition which opens this week at Chapelle de l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, is an arrestingly original portrait of a country whose nightmare is far from over. Robin’s pictures lay bare in unprecedented fashion the depth of Zimbabwe’s destruction and how, for millions, there is no recovery, nor even much hope of one.
Yet, with a fresh election expected next year, hope persists. Robin says Zimbabwe has taught him a cruel lesson about that: how hope might keep you going, but how it can also be dangerous. Robin learned that for himself in prison. “When you’re told you’re going to be let out that day, then you have to go back to your cell, that can be really depressing,” he says. “You have to set your mind to the idea that you could be there for months.” For Zimbabweans, hope has proved even more perilous, says Robin. A curiosity of Mugabe’s 32-year rule has been how, even as he plundered his country, ruined it, and killed and beat his challengers, he has never extinguished his people’s belief in change. The Zimbabwean President holds elections, shares power with the opposition and negotiates a theoretical transition with Zimbabwe’s neighbors. None of these initiatives have come to anything. But to those who ponder Mugabe’s survival – about why Zimbabweans haven’t staged a second revolution – Mugabe’s repression provides one answer and his careful nurturing of hope the other. Even now, says Robin, “Zimbabweans are eternally optimistic. They always think the next election will be the one to change their lives.” It is a testament to Robin’s art and courage that the way those expectations have been so mercilessly – and so deeply and comprehensively – disappointed has rarely been better captured.
Alex Perry is TIME’s Africa bureau chief.
Robin Hammond is a photojournalist based in South Africa.
National Geographic Magazine will be publishing a story next year that will feature the work from this project. The series will also be on display from Nov. 9 through Dec. 9 at Chapelle de l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris, with an opening reception on Nov. 8.
Shannon Jensen has a terrific work in Newsweek Int’l 3 September 2012 issue from South Sudan. Jensen travelled in the country June-July this year, and photographed shoes belonging to refugees who had travelled by foot across the border from Sudan’s Blue Nile state over to neighbouring South Sudan to escape Khartoum government’s military campaign against Southern liberation movement.
Newsweek has dedicated four pages for the series showing overall 18 pairs of shoes. The photos are accompanied by a short text providing background, written solely by the photographer*.
“How to represent a journey in an image?” asks Jensen in the opening sentence of the piece titled ‘A Long Walk’. I think she found a pretty good way to do just that. The idea and its execution reminded me little of Alejandro Cartagena’s Car Poolers.
You can see Jensen’s photos on the Newsweek website here.
*In June I wrote about Newsweek often showing photo projects solely accompanied by photographer’s text. See here.
In 2008, photojournalist Alixandra Fazzina, who lives in Pakistan, began to stumble across stories of young Afghan refugees, children who were fleeing the country for Europe. Soon after she noticed the phenomenon, she visited a refugee camp in Afghanistan, where she witnessed the funeral of a boy who had died trying to cross from Turkey to Greece. Then, on the same visit, at a hospital, she met a boy who had lost his legs—not as she initially assumed, from a land mine, but as a consequence of having been kidnapped and tortured when trying to go west. “All the time he just kept saying he wanted to get the Europe again, despite the risks. He was just so convinced that there was absolutely no future for him as a young Afghan,” Fazzina says. The last time she saw him was in Greece, where he had again fled, the second time losing the prosthetic legs he had needed after his first attempt at emigration. “He was very lucky to survive that far, and he wasn’t done yet.”
The phenomenon that Fazzina observed first-hand was soon confirmed by statistics. The photographer noted a 64% jump in the number of underage Afghan refugees applying for asylum in Europe in 2010. With money that came that same year with her recognition by UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) as the first journalist to win the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award, along with the support of the Norwegian government, Fazzina began a project to document the hardships faced by young people making that journey from Afghanistan.
That project, Flowers of Afghanistan, is now about one-third completed; Fazzina is planning to continue her work in Iran, Pakistan and Italy in the coming months. “When the U.S. leaves, we’re on the brink of civil war,” she says. “It’s very important to me to be highlighting this at this point in time. It’s very important for people to realize that Afghanistan isn’t a success story.”
Although Fazzina had intended to follow the boys—and the very few girls who make the trip—along the road, photographing them, she has found that the journeys are rarely linear. Before they leave home, the boys hide their travel plans, often even from their parents; smugglers, Fazzina says, warn them that to tell will cast a jinn, a bad spirit, on their travels. And once they leave home, false starts are likely; kidnapping is frequent and deportation is a possibility even for children who seek asylum. Instead, Fazzina says she relies on networks and word of mouth, and perhaps the trust that is more easily won by a woman, to find the refugees at each stop along the way. She says that even smugglers, once they hear about her project, will reach out and provide information about their whereabouts. “Of course I want to see them traveling, but I’m not interested in photographing the smugglers themselves, so a lot of what I’ve been getting has been, in photography terms, very quiet pictures,” she says. Her photos from the series are often dark, capturing a moment of furtive rest or a person who must stay in the shadows, but stillness and gloom does not mean calm. “When I take a step back,” she says, “I often wonder if people really understand how dangerous it was.”
And the more time Fazzina has spent in that shadowy world, the clearer the patterns have become. About half the boys, she says, are fatherless due to war or sickness, thrusting them into positions of responsibility in their families. They are from the least stable provinces in the country. Recently, she met some children in Peshawar who had given up or been deported back to Afghanistan, and noticed another level of pattern. “I started to talk to them about the journey, and it was the same places, the same hotels they were held hostage in,” she says. “It’s very shocking and repetitive.”
Even though Fazzina has rarely been able to literally follow the boys she photographs, she has found that there’s a virtual way to keep track of them: through their own photographs, on Facebook. “I see a boy I’ve met and his pictures of himself in Athens, taken with fast cars and in tourist locations and in borrowed clothes, whereas the reality was he was living in a hotel, like a squat, that was being run by the smuggling mafia, full of prostitutes and drugs. It was a million miles from the pictures he showed,” she says. Unfortunately, that brave face can encourage others to try to make the dangerous journey themselves.
She once tried to make those photos that the boys take of themselves into something more true. One 16-year-old she met was passionate about photography. He was, she says, a “genius” at it. He wanted to be a filmmaker. After he survived for six days in a trucking container and arrived in Rome, Fazzina tried to get a camera to him through her colleagues in Italy. By that time he had left for Paris. They spoke by phone. He said that he had been told that he was too old when he went to a children’s home and that he was too young when he went to a refuge for adults. He was sleeping on the streets, in the winter, in the snow. She still hadn’t gotten a camera to him. He didn’t call again. “He just moved on. He disappeared. I have no idea what happened to him,” she says. “I am fearful what his fate is.”
Alixandra Fazzina is a British photojournalist. She is represented by NOOR Images and is the 2010 recipient of the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award. More information about Flowers of Afghanistan is available here.