Refugees Past and Present, Their Faces and Stories

January 15, 2015 Updated: January 15, 2015

To date, the United Nations has registered more than 3.1 million Syrian refugees who have fled to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. As of December 29, according to the Canadian government, 1,063 Syrian refugees had arrived in Canada. There are millions more fleeing other countries, other wars. But numbers do not have faces. A number is not an individual.

However, two photographic exhibitions currently on tour provide refugees with faces and stories. Both were organized and supported by governments with long histories of aiding refugees. “Safe Harbour Turkey, Restoring Hope,” which was recently exhibited at the University of Ottawa, was provided by Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It closed with the start of the university’s Christmas break and is now touring Europe.

Continuing at the university, however, is “War from the Victims’ Perspective: Photographs by Jean Mohr.” Sponsored and organized by the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Musee de l’Elysee in Lausanne, Jean Mohr’s photographs are on display in the Human Rights Research and Education Centre (HRREC), Fauteaux Building, 57 Louis Pasteur, in the heart of the main campus.

Kurdish refugees waiting for food distribution, Qatr camp, Mahabad, Iran, 1991. (ICRC/Jean Mohr)
Kurdish refugees waiting for food distribution, Qatr camp, Mahabad, Iran, 1991. (ICRC/Jean Mohr)
For more than 50 years, Mohr has photographed people gathered into refugee camps the world over.

In Mohr’s photographs, we see the dailiness of loss and displacement in the lives of refugees of many lands.

Born in Geneva, Mohr is nearly 90 years old. He has been working with the International Committee of the Red Cross since he was an ICRC delegate to the Middle East at the age of 24.

In the exhibition, a selection of Mohr’s photographs has been sorted into four subject areas of 15 photographs each. “The Children’s Diaspora” presents photographs of young children in classrooms, young children in the company of other children, all looking at the stranger most carefully.

The photographed photographer, Jerusalem, 1979. (Jean Mohr/Musée de l'Elysée)
The photographed photographer, Jerusalem, 1979. (Jean Mohr/Musée de l’Elysée)

Contrarily, the people in “Portraits of Exile” do not look at the photographer at all. They are old people, very old, and they have seen too much. The photographer with his camera is of no interest at all.

“Temporary Landscapes,” the third grouping of Mohr’s photographs, is both landscape and patched happenstance of structure. One, for example, is of a dormitory where many are to sleep. Are there enough beds? Something is awry. In another photograph, barbed wire fills the window. Bullet holes mar the walls. The caption accompanying photograph of a wrecked airplane notes the airplane crashed in the Sinai in 1967.

“Life goes on,” the fourth component of the exhibition, is more than sleep, food, water. The imagery is more complicated. The woman carrying her baby in a back-sling appears to be young. She is weeping. Her hands cover her face.

Vast Numbers Displaced

For more than 50 years, Mohr has photographed people gathered into refugee camps the world over. The 60 photographs displayed on the walls of the HRREC conference room are of people displaced since WWII into the camps of Cyprus, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Nicaragua, Uganda, Pakistan, Palestine, Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia. The list is not exhaustive. There are still other camps in other places, unhappily.

Mozambican refugee at Sunday Mass, Lundo installation area, Tanzania, 1968. (UNHCR/J. Mohr)
Mozambican refugee at Sunday Mass, Lundo installation area, Tanzania, 1968. (UNHCR/J. Mohr)

In modern times, as state borders have been drawn and redrawn, one consequence has been the displacement of vast numbers of people—people who are no longer wanted where they have lived for centuries. In Mohr’s photographs of the children, the old, and the workers, we see in their faces our own humanity. Very many of us here in Canada have histories of displacement in our own lives and that of our ancestors.

In the exhibition “Safe Harbour Turkey, Restoring Hope,” Istanbul designer Tasarimhane produced a didactic display succinctly reviewing 500 years of Turkey’s willingness to provide refuge to others. Organized both geographically and historically, the display uses graphics, texts, and photographs effectively to tell the country’s national story of assisting others.

The display, for example, includes a copy of a letter Albert Einstein sent to the first president of the Republic of Turkey, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk. The letter is short, clear, and heartbreaking. Dated Sept. 17, 1933, Einstein asks Ataturk to accept 40 professors and scientists whose work and lives are endangered in Germany. Turkey did that and much more. Turkey’s population today includes many who came from other lands seeking protection.

The exhibition’s photograph of Istanbul’s Ashkenazi Jewish synagogue attests to the city’s long and vivid history of multiculturalism over many centuries.

Before its presentation in Ottawa, “Safe Harbour Turkey, Restoring Hope” was displayed at the United Nations General Assembly during September-October, and in November in Washington, D.C. It then went on to tour Europe.

“War From the Victims’ Perspective: Photographs by Jean Mohr” is on display at the University of Ottawa until Feb. 10.

Maureen Korp, PhD, is an independent scholar, curator, and writer who lives in Ottawa. Author of many publications, she has lectured in Asia, Europe, and North America on the histories of art and religions. Email: