Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. Syrian refugees share stories through photos in new exhibition

Syrian refugees who have come to Newfoundland and Labrador in the past few years will share their stories on Saturday at a new exhibition being hosted at Rocket Bakery in St. John's.

Photographer Muhammad Munir has documented the journeys of nearly a dozen refugee families

Muhammad Munir is the photographer behind a new exhibition sharing the stories of Newfoundland and Labrador's Syrian refugees. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Syrian refugees who have come to Newfoundland and Labrador in the past few years will share their stories on Saturday at a new exhibition being hosted at Rocket Bakery in St. John's.

Stroll Through a Minefield — A Photo Exhibition will document the hardships that many of the refugees faced after leaving their home country and showcase just what they left behind.

The exhibition was put together by the Muslim Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (MANAL) and the Muslim Student Association at Memorial University.

More than 45 Syrian refugee families have come to Newfoundland and Labrador in the past few years.

After hearing that many Syrian refugees still needed help getting their new lives established, photographer Muhammad Munir decided to help.

"I said, 'I'm a creative person, I love taking pictures, why don't we do an exhibition just to bring people together and tell them this is what we are looking for and we need their support.'"

Munir met with around 10 families and documented the stories they told him with his camera.

"I knew that it might be a painful story to tell at the beginning, but once I told them about the purpose of the exhibition, they were all for it and they wanted to tell their stories and share them."

Heart-wrenching stories

The portraits of the Syrian refugees are on display this week at Rocket Bakery in St. John's.

Listening to the Syrian refugees stories was hard, said Munir, but it was necessary. 

"I've had experiences where [a few women] started crying while they started telling their stories," he said.

"One of the women said, 'No, don't take my picture in this condition.'"

"That's why you'll see that I took a picture of her hands holding a camera because she was talking about her brother who was still back home."

But it wasn't all tears — Munir said it was inspiring to see kids new to the province get the chance to go to school and live a normal life, free of the daily stresses of living in Syria and refugee camps. 

"The first family I went to receive at the airport, we took them to their house and the children literally went out into the backyard, took their ball and played," he said. 

"It was freezing cold and I just asked them to come inside and they were like, 'No, we have never seen this. We want to play. Don't even ask us to come inside.'"

One refugee even told Munir that it was impossible for him to cry about what he's been through because he was so happy to be here in the present.

"He said, 'Even if you asked me or forced me to cry right now, I can't shed a tear — that's how happy I am to be here.'" 

Event bringing locals and refugees together 

Many of the refugees pictured in these portraits will be on hand on Saturday evening to share their stories. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Munir said the event is an opportunity for the refugees and Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to be brought together.

The refugees are still adjusting to life in Canada.

Munir believes with extra support from people in St. John's and around the province, they can thrive.

At the opening reception on Saturday, translators will be on hand to help the refugees communicate. 

"When the audience comes tomorrow, I'm going to talk to them and give a speech and tell them these people need your help."

"I think people when they read the stories and when they meet the refugees face to face and listen to these stories, they're definitely going to be motivated to do one thing at least and that's all we need."

Long nightmare over

Ayse Sule says the photographs are a way of reminding people in Newfoundland and Labrador that the refugees who have travelled here still need support. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Ayse Sule, a member of the executive committee of MANAL, said the people in the photographs have been through tremendous hardship. 

"These people have been going through a big nightmare for so long," she said.

"When you look at their pictures throughout the exhibition you can tell yourself that they have the facial and body language of those people who are just waking up from a bad dream."

Sule believes that the genuine kindness of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians can help the Syrian refugees adjust to life in Canada.

"They know that the worst is over, that they are safe here, but they don't know what is waiting for them in Canada." she said. 

"We still need to provide them with the emotional support and comfort they need."

All that it takes to make a difference in the refugees daily lives, said Sule, is a nice smile and a greeting to let them know that they are welcome here. 

"The healing process has begun, but it will take a while for them to forget the sufferings of the past and lead a normal life, like you and me, in this beautiful province."

By sharing these photographs, Sule hopes that people won't forget about the hardships of others.

Sule reminds us of the tremendous worldwide impact of the heartbreaking images of Alan, the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Aegean Sea last September.

"That was like something which provoked our senses and which made us remember that we are a part of this big human family."

Sule said we can't lose sight of what is happening to others in our world.

"In order to remember, we need our senses to be provoked and these photos, these exhibitions, are good reminders."

"Hopefully, we will keep remembering."

The exhibition takes place at Rocket Bakery on Water Street. 

With files from Katie Breen and Todd O'Brien