We refugees got to stick together

You’d never know it but I am a refugee, a refugee of America. We come in all colors and sizes, big and small, black, brown and white but you might not recognize us in your cities where you live. I have spent the last five years studying, living with and supporting refugees, both from conflict and economic instability. When I became a refugee I decided to use my job as an artist to share the experiences of others displaced in Senegal by the loss of resources brought about by illegal fishing off West Africa. My family and I spent two months living in St. Louis, a small fishing town that was once the nation’s capitol. What had brought me here was a refugee I met in my new home of Valencia, Spain. Ahmad sold sunglasses at night right outside my home to partying tourists headed to the clubs, every night he would set out his display hoping to make a few euros so he could send them home to his mother in Dakar who had 4 mouths to feed. I asked him one night why he’d come so far and on such a dangerous journey, he said because it was his duty and without the few coins he made nightly his family would likely starve.

At the time I knew little about Senegal but was quick to learn that fishing played a major roll in the country’s livelyhood and that European and Asian trawlers were rapidly decimating the local fish stocks making it nearly impossible to earn a living. I contacted Greenpeace and learned more about the situation, in my mind I felt this worthy of more attention. How bad must it be? I asked myself and within two months along with my wife and 7 year old daughter we set out for St. Louis. I have never liked being a “tourist”, I believe that if you want to understand a person or a place you must invest your time and live like those you seek to gain knowledge about and that was my plan. I got the address for my friend’s family and promised to send his regards when I found them.

Immediatly I could see the poverty when we landed in Dakar, the country was very much third world and the situation only promised to get worse as the fish stocks continued to be harvested without care for the local regulations or traditions. Ahmad was once a fisherman, the nobelest of professions for a Senegalese man. Over the years the catch kept getting smaller till it wasn’t worth the gas to go out to sea not to even mention the risk of the job itself. I found his mother and paid my respects leaving them a gift to remind them I would be keeping an eye on their provider who now worked in Europe. They imagined it as the land of dreams and abundance, I didn’t share the desperate conditions her son was living under, she didn’t need to know. He was the family’s only provider two thousand miles away and doing the best he could while living the life of a refugee.

Or the next two months I met many men who had risked the seas to reach Europe, I heard stories of boats being pushed back into the sea while trying to land on the Canary islands by Spanish police with weapons raised. Tales of being lost off Morocco for days without water as the dead slowly out numbered the living until just one man remained when the shore patrol found the vessel adrift and sent the survivor right back to where he’d started. Those that made it through the Spanish enclaves of North Africa ended up in Spain and were soon connected to the Senegalese underground “businessman’s association” selling products shipped from Dakar by the Marabout families, kind of like the mafia.

Taking all I had learned and experienced My wife and I created an artistic installation about the economic migrants of West Africa. The work was shown in Istanbul in 2014 and then in Valencia that same year. In 2015 we took it to the Midwest of America, the heartland and showed it to high school students showing them a world they’d never imagined, except for the three Senegalese refugee students at the school who were also refugees. The work left a strong impression all who saw it and served as a great educational tool for the study of migrants and refugees.

In the end the project was shown to over 3000 people who , many for the first time, were made aware of the cost of over fishing. Not only does it impact the local economy, it effects lives as a centuries old way of life is erased in just a few decades because greed and profitcare little about human survival. My family and I stand with refugees because they often are given the rawest of deals and we are concerned about their ultimate survival and the survival of those they support from abroad.

We have gone on in the last years to promote the plight of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon in 2015. Now I am in Palestine volenteering with children behind the apartheid wall, refugees of another kind completely. My first experience made me realize that I could help if only by listening and sharing the stories I’d gathered, at least people could become aware of the reality of a refugee’s life and struggles. It is often humbling to see what determination these people have just to survive and provide for their families, often continents away. The last years have changed my perspective greatly and increased my empathy by a factor of ten. It si my goal to change the way others see them too.

Oh, how is it I am a refugee? I lived in Chicago where eight people are killed everyday by gunshots, my family wasn’t safe in my mind, like a war zone the conflict could erupt in a split second and families I’d known had lost children to stray bullets in the night. I took my family and fled the conflict, like many Syrians are still doing today. America now lives by the gun and I don’t want my family getting caught in the crossfire, therefore we are now refugees in Spain escaping the culture of violence that is today’s America. Ahmad and I are still friends and I ask about his mother from time to time, he says she’s surviving.

St. Louis, Senagal 2014 by Daniel Hefty