Photo courtesy of Tom Abi Samra

Refugees and Representation

The word refugee has dominated the media in recent years, but what does it really mean to be a refugee?

Jan 1, 1970

Last January Term, I had the privilege to take a class titled The Other Crisis: Migration and Displacement across the Red Sea with 14 other students, which included a regional seminar to Djibouti. In Djibouti, we spent one week in Markazi Camp, a camp for Yemeni refugees fleeing the war.
Throughout my time in the Markazi Camp — a Yemeni refugee camp five kilometers away from Obock, Djibouti — I asked myself many questions about how the media represents refugees. I wondered in what ways they are represented to others and how they represent themselves orally and through social media and photography.
What does it mean to be a refugee? It is so hard for us to give them a voice, to see them as equals, as part of us; we always see them as the others. However, I could be a refugee, as well as you could be one or anyone we have met throughout our lives.
It shocked me when I heard that some refugees try out the life in the camp and if they don’t like it, they go back to Yemen. This seems to be counter-intuitive, but is it really? You see, we forget that they have preferences, that they can make choices, that they have rights, that they are free to move around and most importantly, that we are all humans.
Our contemporary notion of a refugee is shaped by media — images of the influx of Syrian refugees to Europe, the image of Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian child washed up on the shore and many more. As Peter Nyers writes, the figure of the refugee is often represented as a speechless animal who must be given the bare minimum to sustain life.
Since I had worked with refugees before, albeit not in a camp, I was able, to some extent, to picture them with voices and opinions. However, when Western media outlets portray refugees as pitiful, they present a hierarchy in which Westerners are superior to the supposedly poor and speechless refugees. As a result, viewers are motivated to sympathize, rather than empathize, and to potentially donate to the cause. This may help raise funds from rich countries to support the world’s refugees, but it also creates an erroneous stereotype that inhibits our ability to welcome these people into our societies and countries. Refugees are seen, as Nyers puts it, “sources and spreaders of infectious diseases,” “bogus queue-jumpers” and potential “terrorists”— as inferior and threatening.
Spending time in Markazi, my classmates and I fortunately had the opportunity to shatter the barrier between us and them. They hosted us in their homes and served amazing food, cake and tea. We taught them Math, Chemistry, English, French and Music but most importantly, we were not only welcomed into people’s homes, but also invited into their hearts, thoughts and stories.
Abu Ayham, one of our hosts and a Classical Arabic enthusiastic, compared Yemen to a beautiful young woman who was not given the opportunity to shine, to give birth, to be fertile. He yearns for a promising future for his children abroad. Khaled described the Yemenis’ optimism and love for life, their hopes and sorrows, their life in limbo and their potential future in wealthier nations far from the war. Ali described his flight from his home as a journey, starting by seeking refuge at his relatives’ place, then finally deciding to leave Yemen in a freight boat bound to Djibouti. He views his time in Djibouti as an opportunity to learn, as a set of new experiences. Djibouti, he says, is where he became strong, where he rid himself of his weaknesses and fears accumulated during Yemen’s two previous wars.
Meanwhile, a little kid, Mohsen, told me that he would go back to Yemen at any time. He told me this every day. I also encouraged him to attend school, but he would reply, “in Yemen.” He was homesick. All this is to say that we were not just shallow passerbys – we cared to listen, understand, wrap our heads around their lives. It is important to realize that we all need love, affection, care, attention and support.
Many of these refugees share a common aspiration: resettlement. Most, if not all, of their speeches, pleas and poems ended with a call to the international community for attention. On the other hand, Mohsen and others wish to return to Yemen. In fact, many Yemenis have returned or migrated back and forth between Djibouti and Yemen. So, what do their different opinions tell us? Why did they share their life stories with us? How might this shift the ways we represent refugees, in our and others’ minds?
Privilege is relative. Yemeni refugees in Markazi Camp are privileged in comparison to refugees in Ali Addeh camp, a camp for Somali, Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees also in Djibouti. Furthermore, we, who do not have refugee status, are considered to be more privileged than they are. Also, billionaires are likely much more privileged than us. If we don’t look down upon ourselves because we are not billionaires, then we should not look down upon refugees.
Media is powerful. It defines how refugees are and should be represented. People internalize these stereotypes and pity the refugee, as long as refugees remain far away from themselves, from their lands and their lives. What if these mainstream representations are faulty? With the rise of social media, a greater number of refugees will have the ability to tell their own stories, in their own words and from their own perspectives. To what extent will they fall into the trap of representing themselves as helpless victims? This question may soon be answered as increasingly more refugees secure access to the internet and other technologies.
These are the stories of the Yemeni people of Markazi Camp in Obock, Djibouti. They want people to know about their plight, but they also want to be treated with dignity. What is forgotten are not their materialistic needs, but their rights as humans who have opinions, preferences and the ability to make choices. These are a few stories, but there are many more. Don’t judge, don’t scrutinize, don’t compare — just understand, empathize and help, not with money, but with compassion, attentiveness and care. Listen to the stories and share them.
Note: Our visit to the camp was the final component of a year-long project that NYUAD Professor Nathalie Peutz and photographer Nadia Benchallal undertook to understand and document life at Markazi. Peutz, as an anthropologist, is doing ethnographic research in the camp. Benchalla has been taking portraits of families as well as images depicting daily life at the camp. Nine camp residents were selected and given cameras to document their life from their own perspectives in a year-long project. Finally, fifteen students from NYUAD went to the camp to understand how refugee camps are run, managed and regulated, and to immersive themselves in the refugees’ stories, lives and aspirations. The culmination of all this is a two-part photographic exhibition taking place in NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU New York. In Abu Dhabi, Benchallal’s photographs will be on display in the Project Space from February 4 to February 27, and the students’ reflections and the refugees’ photos will be on display in the Humanities Building (A6). In New York, the exhibition will be at 19 Washington Square North from February 4 to May 30.
Tom Abi Samra is a contributing writer. Email him at
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