Iraqi refugee earns photography fame, Oakland U. degree

Salwan Georges' moving documentary projects and photos have appeared in a variety of publications, with his most renowned project — a series focused on the thousands of Iraqi refugees who have settled in Dearborn since the Iraq War — has been featured in the Washington Post and Business Insider. 

This month, the 24-year-old honors student will cross the stage to graduate from the Honors College at Oakland University in Rochester, with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a full-time internship with the Detroit Free Press. It's a notable feat for anyone, but for Georges, it's especially sweet: Growing up, the Iraqi refugee missed six years of school. 

Born in war-torn Baghdad during the First Gulf War, Georges says his earliest childhood memories are of looking out a window of his family's house to bombs in the distance, thinking they were fireworks. 

When his family fled to a Syrian monastery in Damascus to escape the violence when he was 8 years old, Georges was told he could not attend school due to his status as a refugee — a growing problem in Syria today as 2.2 million school age children are not allowed to go to school, according to the Middle East Institute. 

Instead, Georges tended to olive trees on the mountainside, where he says he first fell in love with painting landscapes, now one of his favorite subjects to photograph. "I loved the mountains, but I just wanted to go to school," he says. Georges' wish was granted in 2004, when, 10 years later, his family's paperwork was finally cleared for a move to America. 

It was his uncle's advice on Georges' first day in the U.S., he says, that gave him the strength to start again in a new country. "He said that he didn't have a chance to go to college, so make sure to learn. (He said) it can change your life.'Those words changed my life." 

Georges' uncle, a translator for the U.S. Army, was killed two years later in a car explosion at a Baghdad checkpoint, but Georges says his words helped him deal with the challenges to come, like learning a new language. "I didn't even know 'yes' and 'no,' that's how bad it was," he says. 

"I felt really small in this country. I'd see people talking but I wouldn't know what they were saying so I'd just smile." Not speaking English and having been out of school for six year meant Georges failed almost every class his freshman year at Southfield Lathrup High School in Southfield, Mich. "Except for American History — I got a C," he says with a laugh. 

The struggles he and many other faced, he says, is what he aimed to capture in "Starting over in Dearborn, Michigan: The Arab capital of North America." "There're a lot of untold stories," he says, now fluent in English. "A lot of people suffered but they just don't say anything about it because they're just happy to be here, they're happy to see a light at the end of the tunnel. 

"It's hard to get jobs when you can't speak English and everything is very confusing. I remember it was very hard for my parents to find work when we got here." Georges adds that "some people act like they've been here for forever, but we're all visitors here, we're all in the same boat. I want people to understand that it's the same for my people as it was for theirs when their families came here." 

And while his story has a happy ending as he prepares to turn the tassel, he says he's found his passion in exposing the inequities of marginalized or struggling groups and minorities. "It makes my family and my country proud, you know. America is my home, but Iraq is my heart." 

By Oona Goodin-Smith

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