Images of exile

Photos personalize Iraqi refugee crisis for Southwest seniors

LINDEN HILLS — Why the family has hung a poster of a tearful little girl on the wall, Lori Grinker can’t quite explain.

That poster was tacked to the cracked and peeling plaster of a cramped apartment in Amman, Jordan, occupied by one of the thousands of Iraqi families that have fled to that country in the past six years. For Grinker, the image captures the squalor she encountered again and again when photographing Iraqi refugees in 2007.

Images from that series, “Iraq: Scars and Exile,” were hanging in Patrick O’Connor’s classroom at Southwest High School in April. Southwest was one of just a handful of schools across the country to host a traveling exhibition of the photos accompanied by a curriculum called “Nothing Like My Home” developed by the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, a New York City-based nonprofit.

The project aims to personalize for high school students the issue of Iraqi displacement since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. In a classroom where some students or their parents are refugees, it also sparked a larger conversation about the loss of home.

“There were some pretty powerful reactions to seeing them,” O’Connor said.

Grinker said a similar thing happened at public high schools in New York City where the curriculum was used earlier this year.

“A lot of the students who came here from difficult situations don’t really know how to talk about it,” she said. “This has really helped them be more open or know how to express what they’ve been through.”

The final step of the project will be to share the photos with the public, which O’Connor’s class plans to do May 7. Grinker will fly in for the discussion, accompanied by Ali Rawaf, a former interpreter for the U.S. military who is now a refugee living in Austin, Texas.

When fighting in Iraq broke out in 2003, People magazine sent Grinker to a U.S. hospital ship anchored off the coast, where her assignment was to photograph wounded soldiers.

“What was happening was so many wounded Iraqis were coming on and they weren’t even prepared for it,” she said. “And the wounds were pretty severe — like burn victims, who they didn’t have the facilities to treat, really, on that ship.”

Grinker already knew well the human cost of conflict. She spent 15 years collecting the images for “Afterwar,” a series chronicling the aftereffects of wars in various parts of the globe.

But something she saw on that ship stuck with her. Several years later Grinker applied for and won a grant from the Open Society Institute that sent her to Jordan.

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees estimates more than 4.7 million Iraqis have left their homes since shortly before fighting began there in 2003. Most are living in other parts of Iraq, but at least 2 million have fled to other countries, mainly Syria and Jordan.

In Jordan, Grinker met extended families of Iraqis packed into small apartments. Many were in the country illegally, and struggled to find employment and to afford school for their children.

“I feel as an American I have a duty to raise awareness,” Grinker said.

“This is something that we created,” she said. “I feel, and I think a lot of the students feel, that we need to address it.”

Southwest senior Kevin Keefe said one of Grinker’s photos made a particular impression on him. In it a woman bears her arm, scarred by the blast from a suicide bomber.

Powerfully, for Keefe, it put a face on the casualty statistics reported from Iraq with numbing regularity. It reminded him, he said, “They’re not just a number; they’re all real people.”

Keefe’s classmate, Fosia Moalin, said the images made her wonder about her own family. Moalin was just a girl when her mother, who is from Saudi Arabia, and her father, who is from Somalia, came to the U.S. as refugees.

“I’m a refugee, but I was really young, so I don’t remember going through these experiences,” she said.

Moalin said she hoped someday to better understand more of what her parents went through.

“I don’t want to remind them of stuff that happened, but I really want to know,” she said.

O’Connor, who often draws his lesson plans from the headlines, said he never fully understood the scope of the Iraqi refugee problem until he started teaching “Nothing Like My Home.”

It had opened his eyes, he said, as well as his students’.

Said O’Connor: “I believe when you can personalize something in school, it makes it more real.

Go see it
Photographs from “Nothing Like My Home” will be shown 7 p.m.–9 p.m. May 7 at 131 Oak Grove Street. The event is free and open to the public. Photographer Lori Grinker and Ali Rawaf, an Iraqi refugee, will be on hand to discuss the project.