Youlena Zaia fled Iraq for Syria with her children in 2005. Three years later, they fled again to the United States. It was her daughter’s idea to bring the photo album—it mostly contained pictures from the 1980s, when Zaia was working as an engineer on the Haditha Dam. Now they’re the only tangible evidence that remains of Zaia’s old life in a world that no longer exists, when an Iraqi Christian woman could wear pants and work on a major construction project and go fishing in the Euphrates River after hours.
Several collages of Zaia’s photos, along with her handwritten commentary in Arabic and in English, are part of “What We Carried: Stories by Iraqi Refugees,” a new photo exhibit at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie and the Daley Center concourse in the Chicago Pedway. The exhibit showcases the work of Jim Lommasson, a photographer based in Portland, Oregon, who met with Iraqi refugees in Portland, Chicago, Boston, and Dearborn, Michigan, and asked if he could shoot pictures of the things they brought with them to America.
“The project is less about what they brought,” Lommasson explains, “than about what they left behind: their jobs, their schools, their culture.”
“What We Carried” began in 2007 when Lommasson was in the process of photographing American soldiers and collecting the oral histories that would become his book Exit Wounds: Soldiers’ Stories—Life After Iraq and Afghanistan. He became curious about Afghan and Iraqi perspectives on the war, so he began asking the refugees he met. One Iraqi woman told him, “I thank Americans for removing Saddam Hussein, but did you have to destroy our country?”
Lommasson decided he would start a new project on the model of Exit Wounds: portraits of refugees and 1,000-to-3,000-word oral histories. He met with Iraqis and took their pictures and recorded their stories, but for some reason, the project wasn’t coming together the way he thought it should.
“The pictures didn’t tell the story,” he says. “I kept kicking the lifeless horse.”
One of the subjects, Zahra Alkaabi, asked Lommasson to make a copy of a family portrait, one of the few possessions she’d brought from Iraq. Lommasson obliged, but as he looked at the picture, he realized that it said far more about Alkaabi’s life, both in Iraq and in America, than any of the pictures he’d been taking. What else had she brought with her? he asked. The only other thing she had was her copy of the Quran.
“She felt so bad about leaving everything, she wanted to forget her past,” Lommasson says. “The only thing she wanted to keep was her faith, so that it would guide her through difficult times.”
This, Lommasson realized, was exactly the story he’d been trying to tell through his portraits. He decided to start over. He photographed the objects and then asked the Iraqis to add their own commentary in English or Arabic, or through drawings.
There was a wide variety of objects. Many of the refugees, like Youlena Zaia, brought photographs. Baher Butti took a family picture and circled each of his siblings and wrote down where they are now; their mother is dead, but Butti doesn’t know in which country she’s buried.
Some refugees were able to bring family heirlooms with them. Dhuwiya Al-Obaidi carried her mother’s eyeglasses. Susan Barwary, Zaia’s sister, brought a china plate and a set of coffee cups that had been in the family for at least two generations. She wrapped them in in her clothes; miraculously, they reached the United States undamaged. “I couldn’t leave these cups in Baghdad despite having left so many valuable things,” she wrote.
Others tried to carry Iraq with them. Haifa Al Habib, a scholar, brought an anthropology textbook to commemorate the destruction of Al-Mutanabbi Street—Baghdad’s largest book market, blown up by a car bomb in 2007—and the culture it represented. Schmeiran Oclesho brought a Hello Kitty notebook her friends had filled with memories and drawings. “Oh! this is my life,” she wrote, “that is no longer alive.”
Dina Hodi brought an Iraqi-flag tiepin. “How can I describe you, Iraq?” she wrote. “My soul is missing your air. . . The fire is burning and destroying us! And you did not stop it!?”
Ula Butti brought her collection of Barbie dolls. This detail touched Lommasson immensely. “It breaks down the notion of us and them,” he says. “They’re not foreign, or exotic, or demonized. Who would think that Barbie dolls would illustrate our common humanity?”
Lommasson has photographed between 120 and 130 objects so far; 20 of the photos are in “What We Carried.” (There are ten more in the pedway.) The exhibition hangs in a gallery in a narrow open hallway on the second floor of the Illinois Holocaust Museum. If you look over the railing, you can see down into the museum’s permanent Holocaust exhibit and witness some of the objects refugees brought to the United States more than 60 years ago. The parallel—and the reason the exhibit has found this particular home—is obvious.
“We see refugees as poor, tired, and weary,” says Lommasson. “But many of the people who are leaving are dentists, students. They’ve walked a hundred miles in bad weather. We always see us and them—these dirty, foreign people. But we’re all refugees, or descendants of immigrants and refugees.”
Nearly four million Iraqis have been forced from their homes since the American invasion in 2003, and 140,000 have found their way to the United States. There are nearly 8,000 Iraqi refugees and 25 Syrian families in Illinois, with more on the way, says Laura Youngberg, executive director of the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society, an organization that helps new immigrants become accustomed to life in the United States.
Because of security concerns the immigration process for Iraqis and Syrians is especially stringent—the screenings and background checks can take as long as two years, and as the Iraqi infrastructure has broken down, the process has started to take even longer. The first wave of immigrants worked with Americans during the occupation and arrived on special immigrant visas. This latest wave are refugees, many of whom don’t speak English and are completely unfamiliar with American life. “They’re in shock,” says Youngberg.
The Iraqi Mutual Aid Society was instrumental in introducing Lommasson to many of the people whose possessions are featured in the exhibition, and a Mutual Aid Society board member proposed the exhibition to the Holocaust Museum. Despite the fraught relations in the past between Jews and other Middle Easterners, the museum agreed it was a good fit.
“The barrier between Iraqis and Jews needs to be let go of in order for Iraqis to thrive in American society,” says Youngberg. “This is an opportunity to start bridging those walls.”
But the bridging of the walls is two-sided. “This is who we are,” says Zaia. “Understand us.”
“What We Carried” runs through 6/26 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, 9603 Woods Dr., Skokie, 847-967-4800, ihlmec.org. Ten additional photos appear in the Daley Center Concourse Gallery, 50 W. Washington.