Faces Behind the Statistics

Members Unveil Photo Exhibit on Iraqi Refugees

Posted May 2, 2008 at 3:20pm

A young girl with a large scar across her stomach, three women facing a wall and a man with bullet scars on his back. These are just a few of the images of Iraqi refugees that went on display in the Rayburn House Office Building last week.

“The word ‘poignant’ comes to mind,” Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) said after viewing the photographs.

The pictures, taken by Gabriela Bulisova, who has photographed other troubled areas of

the world such as the Chernobyl site, were taken during a 10-day stay with a refugee family in December. Prior to coming to Rayburn, they spent two months at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Hastings and California Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey brought the exhibit to the Hill to go hand in hand with the Recovery and Stability of Iraq Act (H.R. 5488), which Waters introduced. The legislation would create an Iraqi displacement coordinator in the Executive Office of the President to make sure a strategy is developed to help refugees of the war-torn nation.

“I thought that we must accept our responsibility because of the displacement, and we must do something to deal with not only the movement inside the country, but the movement outside the country,” Waters said at the opening of the exhibit.

Approximately one in five Iraqis — roughly 5 million people — have been displaced from their homes by the war. Almost half of the refugees suffer from absolute poverty and 70 percent are without access to an adequate water supply, according to statistics released by Waters’ office.

“It’s really an epidemic, and I realized that it’s such huge numbers, such a huge crisis and there was hardly any media attention,” Bulisova said.

During her stay in Iraq and Syria, Bulisova lived with an Iraqi family. “I wanted to stay with an Iraqi family to gain a better understanding of what it is 24 hours a day to be dealing with an impossible situation,” she said.

The exhibit features poster-sized photos and small captions describing each situation. Bulisova was not allowed to take pictures outside of the homes she visited, though she did manage to snap a few secret photos. Many of the people she met had lost family members and friends to the war.

“Pretty much every single story is a tragedy,” Bulisova said. “Every single story is unique and it’s very heartbreaking.” She said the number of refugees is so large that it’s easy to get lost in statistics. Hastings and Waters hope Bulisova’s photos will help show the human side of the crisis.

“What I’m hoping is that this kind of portrayal will help our efforts here in Congress to see to it that America takes on a more significant role in dealing with the real problem that the refugees have,” Hastings said.

Sharing that sentiment, Waters said, “What better way to help tell a story than through pictures of real faces of the people who are the victims of the war?”

After looking at the photos, Hastings expressed his displeasure with the current refugee situation.

“I don’t at any time feel comfortable when I know that there is abject misery that spread because of war and most of these persons who are victims didn’t have political axes to grind,” Hastings said. “It also kind of makes me a little angry that a country like Sweden has accepted 40,000 of the Iraqi refugees, and we have accepted less than 5,000 in America. That troubles me.”

Jacob Kurtzer, a Congressional advocate with Refugees International who was also at the exhibit’s opening, said Congress is not the problem.

“Congress has increased the humanitarian funding that’s necessary. Congress has passed resettlement legislation,” he said. “From our perspective, the roadblock to a more substantial and more appropriate response from the United States has been at the level of the administration, not at the level of Congress.”

Kurtzer is hoping the photos will show viewers the reality of the situation.