For Displaced: Stories from the Syrian Diaspora, Majd Taby and Sara Kerens (writer and photographer, respectively) traveled alongside Syrian refugees, fleeing war and the Islamic State, from Turkey to Greece and up through Europe during the height of the refugee crisis. The book weaves together narratives, interviews, and photographs to tell a more human, individual story than the quick takes we got from the western media.
Full disclosure: I helped Kickstarter this project, and my name appears in the donor list at the back.
Man… My beard was big and I was obviously ~20lbs heavier 2.5 years ago when I unboxed this… I’m still overweight (at time of writing), and apologies for taking so long to give this book a review.
No worries, though: it seems there are over 500 copies available, and at time of writing, Taby & Kerens are donating 100% of proceeds to the Equal Justice Initiative to work on police violence. I’m throwing this out early and recommend Diaspora as an important document of one of the defining moments of the twenty-teens, the European refugee crisis that helped fuel the baser parts of human feeling and led to the rise of the far right in Europe and the United States. I hate to say it, but insofar as one of the goals of the so-called Islamic State was to destabilize the West, and insofar as the now, thankfully-failed Islamic State forced over 1,000,000 people to flee north and west to safety in Europe, and given that hatred of all those different people coming into our neighborhood gave Boris and Donald and the others another fear to build their platforms on, the Islamic State has most definitely succeeded. As a practicing Muslim and patriotic American, I’m disgusted and ashamed and I seek the mercy of Allah.
But that’s all in the present, here with less than 100 days until the US Presidential election of 2020.
Back when Taby and Kerens started their 10 month journey, Obama was still the US President, Brexit hadn’t been voted on yet, and the refugee crises was at its height. It was a simpler, more concrete time, and the 5 years since has been a steady downward trend, mentally, for me anyway, even if I’m now more financially secure-enough and physically healthier than I’ve ever been. I think many of the refugees are also better off now. They’re probably not doing as well as they were before the wars started, but wherever they are, things are hopefully on the upswing for them, even if the racism and classism and group infighting are far more mainstream and visible and impossible to avoid or ignore than back when they were forced out of their homes.
What is it… Time heals all wounds? I guess… but it also rips open new ones, and Black Lives Matter has been running nonstop this whole time, with only a slight glimmer of hope now, in the last year of the Trump presidency (its first term, anyway). But I digress.
The book begins with a brief biographical introduction, and then follows the route that the refugees take/took, more or less, though Taby & Kerens are able to move in ways that their subjects weren’t. There are stories from people getting ready to leave Turkey and people who are stuck there, having sent family members ahead to hopefully earn enough money to will allow the family to join together again one day. They follow the refugees through the mountains, across the sea in a rubber dingy, to Lesbos, Greece. There are interviews and stories with volunteers and locals that helped everything keep moving, and images from the refugee camps where migrants waited for travel papers before heading to Athens, then across the various borders, and on to Austria or Germany or Sweden or the Netherlands.
In Austria, Taby met up with a childhood friend, Jack, who was heavily involved with a Boy Scouts-type program in Syria, and the rest of the book is made up of interviews with (mostly) other former scouts who resettled or were students in Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden. This is more a discussion of the Syrian Diaspora than the then-ongoing refugee crisis, with most of the interviewees being current or former students who have been around for several years, and this lends the feel of a sharp break between the first half and the second. There’s scant mention of, and few photographs, from the migrant camps in various countries, and most of the interviewees seem to be doing pretty well, all things considered. They have trendy clothes and decent flats and smartphones and all, and look pretty much assimilated.
Given how long asylum claims take, and the sorts of stasis the refugees and migrants found themselves in once they finally arrived to a welcoming nation, it’s probably fortunate that Jack and the other scouts were available to Taby and Kerens, though it also means that the vast majority of interviews are with 20- and 30-somethings, mostly rather western-looking and seemingly liberal-minded, with well-kept beards (if they have them at all) and preppy/hipster attire. The few interviews with women feature either Western European ladies or young Afghani or Syrian ladies who don’t wear hijab and draw sharp looks (and probably much condemnation) from more conservative refugees. It would’ve been nice to hear from some of them, I think, though given what I know about the various cultures—I’m familiar with the cultural practices of Arab, Pakistani, Indian, and Bengali Muslims—I suspect the more conservative refugees wouldn’t want to interact much with Taby & Kerens.
The images are striking in black & white, and with the text, present a much broader story than the few pictures and soundbites we got back then, and add a more individual, human face to the refugee crisis. Displaced: Stories from the Syrian Diaspora remains available, and I guess I’m not surprised. On the one hand, who wants to memorialize or study or remember the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis? On the other hand, if we did want such a thing, would we pick up a photo/interview book from a couple of rather young people with much enthusiasm and a few lines on their resumes, or would we look to one of the news outlet talking heads or politicians or newspapers, depending on our political predilections? I’m glad I helped bring the project to life, and while it arrived a bit banged up, it makes a good socially-conscious addition to my bulging, overwhelmed shelves.
If your memory has faded or you have some interest in the refugee crisis, Displaced and the project website are worth a look. The writing is good and the interviews provide a window into the lives of people who, but for fortune, could be me, or me 10 or so years ago, anyway.* And Kerens’ photography is much more thorough, expansive, and personal than the photographs we got via the normal news outlets back then. It’s not just rubber dinghies and beaches, it’s not just camps. There was far more to it, and Taby and Kerens went everywhere.
*As mentioned, Taby mostly speaks to people in their 20s and 30s. I’m over 40, so… maths. Were I in such a situation, I’d hope I would have the willingness to talk to an interviewer, but who knows if I’d ever come into contact with Taby and Kerens?