Faces of Syrian Refugees exhibit at Boston City Hall. Photo: Ezekiel Moriarity

By Kiran Jagtiani and Zeke Moriarty

About a year ago, photographer Michael Cohen was sitting in his synagogue listening to a talk about a refugee camp in Jordan.

The speaker, Professor Dana Janbek from Lasell College, was talking about her experiences in the Zaatari refugee camp. While listening, Cohen had an idea: What about documenting the lives of settled Syrian refugees? Cohen approached Janbek with the project proposal, and she immediately agreed to help.

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That was the beginning of the Faces of Syrian Refugees photo exhibit, a display of portraits of refugees intended to counteract the negative portrayal in the media.

With the help of Janbek and journalist Amy Bracken, Cohen created an exhibit that shines light on the celebrations, hardships and hope for the future that many established refugees have in their new countries. For the month of June, the exhibit was on display in Boston City Hall in honor of Immigrant Heritage Month. The exhibit presents life-size images of 20 different Syrian refugees from Germany, Canada and the United States.

“As a Jewish American, I remember the story about the transatlantic ship, the St. Louis, which had about 950 Jews on it that were leaving Germany in 1939,” said Cohen, referring to the parallels that the MS St. Louis story has with the current refugee crisis. A ship full of Jewish refugees from Germany had been denied entry into the US and Cuba, with half of them dying on the way back.

“Every year, I would say to myself that the world was going to step in before this gets any worse. And of course, the world has not stepped in,” said Cohen. Americans are introduced to Syrian refugees through the media, showing frightening and sad photos of migrants struggling to escape, he said.

“We kind of got a look at Syrian refugees at their worst,” he said. “And I thought, well maybe there’s a way to reintroduce Syrian refugees to Americans and show them what it looks like when they are welcomed to a new community and they are thriving.”

And the exhibit does just that. Cohen, Bracken and Janbek had traveled to meet and interview refugees who had been living in their new homes for at least a year. Asking them questions that would be asked of anyone else, such as their favorite song or what makes them happy. The questions and answers were accompanied by beautiful portraits and full body photos of each refugee.

“I think people are very struck by how beautiful the photos are,” said Bracken, who worked on the interviews and questionnaire. She says the most captivating part is the format of the exhibit, comparing it to a “questionnaire you might usually see in Vanity Fair.” Though Bracken believes it’s a very different format she loved it.

“I think people find [it] refreshing.”

While she believes the outcome of the exhibit has been successful, getting there was a challenge.

“There was one point when we were wondering about giving up,” she admitted, explaining that one of the biggest obstacles was finding and contacting the refugees.

However, Bracken said that their biggest challenge was doing justice to the refugees. The team sat with people for about an hour and a half, to get to know each of the refugees.

“What you see on these panels is just a very small portion of our actual conversations,” she said. “It’s hard presenting few questions and answers, knowing it’s a very incomplete picture.”

Bracken says the refugees have much deeper stories that couldn’t be presented in a Q&A format, but the simpler presentation makes it more accessible and appealing to the audience.

Creating the personal connection with the audience allowed Bracken and her team to complete their goal of educating the public on how similar the lives of Syrian refugees are to Americans, she said.

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