Artist Creates Tiny Houses From The Memories Of Refugees

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Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Dec. 29 to reflect the new closing date for the exhibition.

At first glance, it seems like a charming exhibition: Ten old-fashioned suitcases, with a miniature diorama in each. The models, with their meticulously detailed furnishings, remind you of dollhouses.

Then you spot snaking tangles of exposed wires, rubble-strewn streets and blasted chandeliers. A child’s tricycle is gritty, covered in dust.

It’s only after you read the wall texts and listen to the accompanying audio that you realize what’s going on. These small sculpted dioramas represent the homes left behind, often in a state of destruction and disarray, by refugees and immigrants who fled their native countries.

Artist and architect Mohamad Hafez and writer, speaker and student Ahmed Badr created the project to humanize the lives and stories of refugees, they say. The stories and homes could belong to “your neighbors, friends, kids your kids go to school with,” says Badr, 19, a sophomore at Wesleyan University, who is from Iraq and is himself a refugee. The suitcases further stand for “the memories and the emotional baggage that we all have and carry with us,” says Hafez, who was born in Damascus and originally came to the U.S. to study at Iowa State University.

The art installation, is on display at the UNICEF Center in New York through January 19. Its creators are trying to arrange future venues for their exhibit.

Badr and Hafez began working together on the project in the summer of 2017, each bringing a different skill set to the mix. Badr is responsible for “the story part and the audio,” which includes interviews with the refugees and additional commentary from Badr. Hafez provides the visual aspects. Together they interviewed ten families that had resettled in New Haven, where Hafez now lives. Hafez created the dioramas based on those stories. Because there were no photographs, only memories, he asked interviewees to “describe the furniture, what did the room look like, tell me about your favorite room, what is your favorite object in the house, what did you take with you when you left.” And then Hafez went back to his studio and started modeling.

The diorama displays three rooms. From the massive holes in each wall, says Badr, you can see the trajectory of the missile that on July 25, 2006 flew through the Baghdad house in which Badr and his family lived. The bomb entered via the bathroom wall, passed through the living room and into the kitchen. There it also punched holes in three metal canisters, which the family had just a few days before emptied of the natural gas they contained. That was fortunate; had the canisters been full, the whole neighborhood might have gone up in flames. The bathroom and kitchen are covered with dirt and dust; an array of metallic debris looms overhead. Yet the living room is mostly intact, a verse from the Koran in elaborate calligraphy seemingly untouched in a golden frame, and a pot of brightly-colored flowers blooming in the foreground — suggestions, perhaps, of hope. Within a week of the bombing, the family left for Syria, then made their way to the United States. When Badr first saw the diorama, he says, “I felt as if I entered my house for the first time in 11 years. I never thought I would see it again.”

Um Shaham: Engulfed By Flames In Mosul

A singed car sits at the center of a desolate scene of stray tires, a barren tree, and scattered debris. The diorama depicts the aftermath of a 2003 fire that engulfed the home of Um Shaham and her family. The ground beneath their car is covered with sand, which neighbors threw on the car to quench the fire — but is tinged with red to reflect the burns she and her son suffered. The scene speaks of a “demolished life,” says Hafez. “You can’t make sense of everything she went through,” and it’s “intentional that you can’t figure out and make sense of every single object there.” You can nonetheless see in the background an arched doorway reflective of traditional Iraqi architecture. Shaham’s husbad was subsequently killed by a stray bullet while driving his taxi. She and her children went to Turkey, and from there to the United States.

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