Apr 25, 2017 · 3 min read
Uwen, 9, Ethiopia (charcoal on wood)

REFUGE tells the stories of ten refugee children from Somalia, Syria and Ethiopia who are resettling in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

This project began in October 2016, after a frank conversation with my mother about finding and living my purpose. The idea was simple at first — to draw local refugee families — but quickly outgrew that phrase. As the political climate shifted and the United States closed its doors to refugees, this project took on greater meaning: not only to provide a financial give-back to these families in need, but also to humanize an issue that is so highly politicized and often demonized.

REFUGE was inspired by Lancaster — my hometown — a place where political leanings and this humanitarian issue could not be more at odds. This city of 60,000 and county of half a million is known as ‘America’s Refugee Capital’ because it takes in 20 times more refugees per capita than any other town in the United States. In November of 2016, Lancaster County voted heavily in favor of Donald Trump. This kind of dichotomy exists all over the United States. Through art and storytelling, I hope to demonstrate the qualities we share as human beings, not the differences caused by circumstance.

I chose to focus on children because they have an energy — an optimism, ambition and a hopefulness — to which every person can relate. I photographed the subjects using an iPhone and a flashlight in a few dark places: a storage closet at the Church World Service office in downtown Lancaster, the basement of one family’s home, and the bedroom of another.

Amot Cham, 7, Ethiopia
Benni Ochala, 12, Ethiopia. Benni, his immediate family and his cousins (the Chams) fled to a Kenyan refugee camp during the Anuak Genocide in the early 2000s. A few years later, the families were moved to different camps within Kenya. When the Chams resettled in Lancaster two years ago, they requested that the Ochalas be placed in Lancaster as well. In late 2016, the Ochalas were granted asylum and came from Kenya to join their cousins in Lancaster. After years of separation, the families were reunited. Now they live together — all 13 of them — under one roof in Lancaster City.
Ashe Salah, 11, Somalia
Ayat Aljamal, 16, Syria. Ayat’s parents fled Daraa, Syria in 2013 after their home was bombed. The attack left Ayat’s then 2 year old sister Lamis with shrapnel in her stomach. They sought medical attention in Jordan, where they stayed for 3 1/2 years. Because of Lamis’ injury, the family was granted expedited status to the United States. They came to Lancaster in July of 2016.

These photographs later served as references for the drawings.

Ashe Salah, 11, Somalia (charcoal on wood)
Benni Ochala, 12, Ethiopia (charcoal on wood)

I spoke to the children and their parents about their journey to Lancaster, what they missed about their home, what their greatest hopes and fears for life in America were, what they enjoyed doing most with their family, what the children hoped to be when they grow up. The answers provided an optimistic vision of the future and a view into life amidst war and displacement.

The pieces will go on tour beginning this Thursday, April 27th, in Washington, D.C. For more information on dates and locations, please visit this link.

You can find the live auction here. A portion of the proceeds will go directly to the families who participated, many of whom support upwards of ten people on a single minimum-wage income.

Feel free to drop me a line: claire@clairesalvo.com.