‘You have to come close to other people to see them’

Amira at World Refugee Day 2017Amira Alamry, a Syrian mother and former schoolteacher now living in Massachusetts, speaks at a World Refugee Day event at Boston City Hall, with her portrait in the background.

A City Hall exhibit and World Refugee Day event offer a glimpse behind the numbers.

BOSTON – The portraits are displayed in pairs: one life-size, the other a close-up, with a questionnaire in the middle that includes the subject’s name, the year of departure from Syria, and tidbits of daily life: fondest memory, favorite TV book, favorite TV show, hopes for the future.

We learn that Raed, who left Syria in 2013, loves the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, but also the lyrics of the Arabic-language singer Majida Halim El Roumi. Ali, who fled Syria in 2014, loves The Simpsons – but in English, not the German dub, which isn’t funny. He’d love to meet Angela Merkel.

Talar, who left Syria in 2012, misses school life and her friends, many of whom are still in Syria. Rawa’a, who was resettled in Canada, wants to make Prime Minister Justin Trudeau proud of the Syrians his country has welcomed. Oh, and she loves the phrase “How’s it goin’?”

Speaking at a World Refugee Day ceremony at Boston City Hall on June 20, flanked by his photographs, Michael S. Cohen, curator of The Faces of Syrian Refugees, quoted Ali (the Simpsons fan) to explain the goal of his project: “You have to come close to other people to see them.”

The 20 sets of portraits are on display at Boston City Hall for Immigrant Heritage Month. Cohen spoke at the World Refugee Day event along with Amira Alamry, one of his subjects, who has lived in the Boston area with her family for three years, with an asylum petition pending.

Alamry described a happy and peaceful life in Syria, cut short by the war and the loss of everything the family had. The violence was dangerously close – “we had to leave for our kids’ safety.” By the time they fled, the children had become experts at telling different weapons apart, so they knew when to ignore the noise, and when to hide under their beds.

The family went to Lebanon first, then came to the U.S. People have generally been welcoming, she said – but still she takes pains to emphasize that refugees want to support themselves and give back to their new communities. “When the town welcomes refugees, the refugees won’t live off of taxpayers,” she said. “They will do so well in their communities. Refugees love working…Syrians (in particular) have opened businesses. They have created new jobs.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there were 65.6 million forcibly displaced people around the world at the end of last year. About two-thirds are “internally displaced persons,” still living in their own countries; 22.5 million are refugees. The vast majority spend years in camps, hoping to return home or be resettled; only 189,300 were resettled in 2016.

The U.S. has historically been a haven for refugees. In fiscal year 2016, 84,994 refugees were resettled here; another 42,000 have been resettled so far in fiscal 2017, which ends Sept. 30. In recent years, Massachusetts has welcomed about 2,000 refugees per year, but in 2016, the number rose to 2,433, including 363 Haitians, 356 Iraqis, 303 from the Democratic Republic of Congo, 254 from Bhutan, and 209 Syrians, and smaller numbers from over three dozen other countries.

Want to learn more about refugees? Check out the UNHCR website, including this quick explainer on the difference between refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced persons. The Migration Policy Institute has a great overview of refugees in the U.S. Find statistics on refugees in Massachusetts here.

– Marion Davis and Dea Dodi