Iraqi American photojournalist documents the journey of refugees in Metro Detroit

Over the years, wars and abysmal living conditions in Middle Eastern countries have displaced 60 million people from their homes. The refugees' struggles to get to Western countries and start over is documented regularly in photographs and videos in hopes of changing the standpoints of many worldwide. 

As the war in Iraq and Syria goes on, the metro Detroit area, where the majority of Arabs outside the Middle East reside, continues to open its doors to new Iraqi and Syrian refugees. Salwan Georges, a staff photojournalist at the Detroit Free Press and an Iraqi refugee, made it his mission to tell every refugee's story. "My goal is to continue photographing refugees arriving in Michigan, especially Middle Eastern," Georges said. 

Georges escaped the political turmoil in Iraq in 1998 with his family, seeking asylum in Syria and then immigrating to the U.S. in 2004. Both Iraq and Syria have a special place in his heart, as they were once home, so he understands the difficulty to leave everything behind in search of a new "home." Recently, he photographed the conditions of a Sudanese refugee family new to the Detroit area for the Free Press. 

He explained that photographs bring the story to life and make observers relate to the people in the photos. "Once we covered their story, they received more support to start over in a new world for them," Georges said. Other than the Detroit Free Press, Georges' photos have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, USA today, the Telegraph (UK) and the Intercept. 

The Arab American National Museum showcased some of Georges' photographs in an exhibit called "Starting Over in Dearborn", which ran from April 30 to August 21. It offered people an inside look into the trials and hardships endured by Iraqi refugees struggling to start a new life while upholding their cultural identity. 

One of the seven photos presented in the exhibit that captivated many is of a young Iraqi boy helping his father grill buffalo fish, a popular dish in Iraq, over a pit fire on Monday, July 21, 2014. "It's just a moment that took me back to Baghdad," Georges said. Another photo shows a mother and daughter outside the Karbala Center during the Arbaeen (the 40th day after the death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson) walk event in Dearborn on December 5, 2015. 

This memorial is part of Shi'a Iraqis' cultural identity. Even after immigrating, they continue to preserve it. Therefore, the moments Georges captures usually focus on the identity refugees protect when they immigrate. "The exhibit consists of seven photos only because it's part of a long-term project," Georges said. 

"I'm in a three-year mentor program to finish a book on refugees and I am very grateful to be given the opportunity to be one of the participants in the program and to be mentored by two amazing people from whom I draw inspiration." He is mentored by Ed Kashi, known for his work with National Geographic, and Jim Estrin of the New York Times in the Anderson Ranch advanced three-year mentor program in Colorado. 

The mentors co-teach 15 talented photographers — diverse in age and experience — to perfect their projects. 

"There is a story on expats living in the bubble of Jakarta; a film project about military veterans, PTSD and murder; an examination of the U.S. political process through the experiences of a fundraiser and young people; a project about domestic abuse from the perspectives of the abused and the abuser; a story on walrus tusk hunting and the cultural implications of this ancient activity; a Puerto Rican photographer telling the timely story of the economic crisis there; a magical and lyrical street view of Detroit today and a project on Iraqi refugees in the Detroit metro area being told by an Iraqi refugee," Kashi wrote on his blog. 

"I'm working on two projects combined into one book," Georges said. "One is telling other Iraqi refugees' stories and the other one is my family's story, which I have been documenting for a long time." For his photobook, Georges is only documenting the journey of Iraqi refugees, but he will keep on documenting other refugees' stories at the Detroit Free Press. 

To learn more about his project, visit Georges' website: www.salwangeorges.com, where you can check out more photos under "Finding Freedom", a title not yet set in stone. His work will also be presented in an exhibit called "We See" with three other photographers — Dave Jordano, Vanessa Miller and Rashaun Rucker — who have also reported the condition of people living in Detroit for the past 40 years. 

The opening reception is on Friday, October 14, from 5 to 8:00 p.m. at the Valade Family Gallery in Detroit.

by Zahraa Farhat
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