Photographing Religion and Displacement: UNHCR’s 30 Days of Faith

Introductory reflections by Prof Alastair Ager, Refugee Hosts Co-I (Queen Margaret University) and Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Refugee Hosts PI (UCL)

Humanitarianism is marked by a commitment to principles of impartiality and neutrality. Agencies have often shied away from engagement with religion and its role in the lives of refugees for fear of compromising these principles. However, religion is not just a marker of identity, and thus difference. It is a lens into the values, hopes and experiences of refugees.

When UNHCR – following the breakthrough UN High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Faith and Protection in 2012 – posted images of refugees through the holy month of Ramadan in 2013 it not only vividly illustrated the core place of religion in the lives of Muslim refugees across the world. It arguably reshaped the representation of refugees in the secular gaze of  humanitarian institutions.

In light of our project’s interest in exploring both the roles of faith in displacement, and representations of displacement, UNCHR’s Photography Unit has kindly granted Refugee Hosts permission to reproduce the 30 photographs and captions that were originally posted, one-by-one, on each of the 30 days of Ramadan in 2013. Each photograph was taken on same day that the image was published by UNHCR, with UNHCR’s Photography Unit in Geneva working closely with a network of photographers throughout the 30-day period to ensure that diverse situations of displacement and different groups of Muslim refugees around the world were represented throughout the series.

These people’s everyday experiences during Ramadan, alongside their reflections on their and their families’  past, present and future lives, are represented in the context of a range of spaces and places, including in Za’atari refugee camp (Jordan), in the I-12 Refugee Settlement in Islamabad and in Attock (both in Pakistan), Dadaab refugee camp complex (Kenya), and in Thailand’s Ayutthaya immigration detention centre, and in cities and rural areas including Cairo (Egypt), Texas (USA), Beirut and the Bekaa Valley (both in Lebanon), San Juan (Costa Rica) and Malta. In spite of its primary focus on refugees (as reflected in UNHCR’s introduction to the series, reposted below), a number of photographs from Mali and the Philippines also reflect the experiences of Muslim internally displaced people (IDPs); members of host communities are also present through photographs of Lebanese volunteers in Beirut, and references to host families in the Bekaa valley and host communities in Thailand. Our Representations of Displacement series continues to explore different ways in which refugee and host experiences can be represented to diverse audiences, including through a particular focus on diverse spaces of encounter between displaced and hosting communities in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. 

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30 Days of Faith, by UNHCR

The Islamic month of fasting, Ramadan, is observed by Muslims across the world. Over the 30 days of Ramadan [in 2013], which began on July 10 and ends on August 9, we will offer a glimpse into how refugees observe this important period so far away from home. We asked photographers in different parts of the world to capture people’s memories, struggles and dreams. Come on this annual journey.

Day 1

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Day 1: Ziad, 31, is a father of three, with another child on the way. On the first day of Ramadan, Ziad returns to his family’s caravan after working a shift as a guard in Za’atri refugee camp. “Last Ramadan, I was in prison [in Syria],” he recalls. His wife and children would tell him to come home, but each time he would have to tell them, “I can’t, the door is locked.” He becomes emotional as he remembers those days, when he was unable to buy gifts for his children. Last year in prison; this year a refugee. “It’s like death” he says. “My parents and all my brothers and sisters are still in Syria.” The TV reports on bombing in his home village. It’s a constant internal battle not to pick up everything and return, but the safety of his young family keeps him rooted. He may be far from home, but at least he is with his children this Ramadan. UNHCR/J. Kohler

Day 2

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Day 2: Although it’s the second day of Ramadan, not everyone is fasting in Jordan’s Za’atri refugee camp. Since she is still a child, Rahma can eat noodles prepared by her Aunt Imani, who has started cooking the evening meal, iftar, which marks the breaking of the daylight fast. The little girl is full of energy and wants to help her aunt. “Was Ramadan better here or in Syria?” Imani asks. “In Syria,” Rahma and her cousins chorus. “We didn’t have to buy fruits and vegetables; we could just go out and get them from the garden,” Rahma explains. Imani says that tempers have been flaring in the camp’s markets over the price of vegetables – everyone complains about not having enough vegetables for Ramadan. “I’m being told by relatives back in Syria that the fruit is falling unpicked,” Imani’s husband, Ihmed adds. Many of Imani’s friends have been crying in recent days, thinking of what they left behind when they fled to Jordan. UNHCR/ Jared Kohler

Day 3

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Day 3: As the sun sets over Za’atri in northern Jordan, Syrian refugees pass one of the many makeshift mosques that have mushroomed in the sprawling refugee camp. Many are heading home for iftar, the evening meal during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, which began earlier this week. There are about 50 places of worship, set up by the residents, in every corner of Za’atri. One refugee from the town of Dara’a, just across the border, says that what they miss most about observing Ramadan in Syria is the communal spirit. “Everyone cooked and then took it to someone else’s house. Everyone was together.” But the mosques in Za’atri, especially during Ramadan, have become important focal points for rallying a sense of community. UNHCR/ Jared Kohler

Day 4

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Day 4: Lalako was a shepherd in his youth, grazing large herds of cattle in the lush mountains of Kunar, Afghanistan. At age 85, he has been a refugee in Pakistan for 33 years. “I vaguely remember those peaceful days like a beautiful dream,” he says. Seven years ago, Lalako became paralyzed from the waist down and now spends most of his time in the shabby, makeshift hut his sons built for him and his wife in I-12 Refugee Settlement in Islamabad. Although he lives with disability, he enjoys Ramadan and spending time with his five children and 37 grandchildren. “During Ramadan, I teach my grandchildren the stories of the prophets of Allah. They sacrificed their lives for the betterment of humankind. I tell my grandchildren to be kind to people who can’t help themselves and to help the poor. And if you don’t have money to help, then a simple smile to a fellow human being will be counted as a good deed. You are rewarded for every good thing you do.” UNHCR/ Duniya Aslam Khan

Day 5

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Day 5: In peacetime Syria, Ismail studied French. Today, he and his uncle run a small shop selling kitchen goods in Jordan’s Za’atri refugee camp. It’s the fasting month of Ramadan and, as the evening meal approaches, a steady stream of customers flow through the shop buying trays, cooking pots and steel wool for cleaning. Ismail and his uncle buy their supplies from wholesalers outside the camp, who have also sold them some decorations for Ramadan. A year ago, Ismail was in Syria for Ramadan and says that his village would be shelled as they sat down for iftar, the evening meal to break the fast. Asked if they still respected the fast under these conditions, Ismail’s uncle said: “Of course! The war doesn’t even enter into the decision.” UNHCR/Jared Kohler

Day 6

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Day 6: Syrian chef, Galal (centre), prepares the evening iftar meal during Ramadan at the busy Bab Elhara Restaurant in Cairo. “I‘ve worked in several restaurants in Syria and Saudi Arabia and I love cooking,” he reveals, adding that his father cooked for an ambassador in Syria and taught 35-year-old Galal how to cook. “The first dish he taught me to cook is kibbeh [a Levantine dish made from bulgar, minced onions and ground meat], which is important not only during Ramadan – it’s the jewel of any dinner.” But Galal lost his job a year ago when things got worse in Damascus and restaurants began shutting down. He fled to Egypt a month ago with his wife and two children. The thing he misses most about Ramadan in Syria is getting together with his whole family. “I was away from Syria for eight years of my own free will in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but now I’m away forcibly. As soon as things calm down, I will go back home.” UNHCR/ Shawn Baldwin

Day 7

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Day 7: Dalal, 63, thinks of past Ramadans spent in her native Syria as she observes the fasting month this year in Egypt, where she lives in exile. “We had long tables and many different kinds of food,” she recalls. Now, they have to be more economical and she can only make a few dishes. But she said Ramadan last year in Syria was traumatic because of the growing conflict. “As soon as we started eating iftar [the evening meal to break the daytime fast], the shelling and gunfire would begin. It was dreadful. We would have a bite or two and then we would have to scramble to find a place to hide.” This year, Dalal is worried about her grandson, Basil, whom her family fears was detained. They haven’t heard from him in more than a year. “I cry my eyes out all the time,” she sobs. UNHCR/ Shawn Baldwin

Day 8

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Day 8: Dauod, 35, fled Afghanistan with his family when he was two years old. He now runs a small grocery shop in the I-12 refugee settlement in Pakistan. Ramadan is a particularly busy period for him because lots of people want to buy the ice he sells. “I sell more ice during Ramadan because people use it for evening meal drinks, like sherbet and mint shlombay [like a lassi] as well as iced water. People here are extremely poor and so I often give small pieces of ice to children for free. I’m not a rich man and can’t give zakat [alms], so this is my way of helping.” He said that observing Ramadan in the settlement was particularly challenging for smokers and tea lovers, who must wait until sundown to satisfy their craving. In the searing heat, people also come to his shop, where it is a bit cooler because of the ice. “When I need help with the huge blocks of ice, there are many strong hands to help.” UNHCR/ Duniya Aslam Khan

Day 9

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Day 9: Ahmed, 48, (left) and his family share the Iftar meal during Ramadan in Cairo, Egypt. Ahmed spent 4 months in jail in Homs, Syria before fleeing to Turkey with his wife and 2 children after their home was destroyed. “I feel like I’m in heaven here because I spent the last 3 Ramadan’s under gunfire,” he says. UNHCR / Shawn Baldwin

Day 10

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Day 10: For Jume, Ramadan is a time to remember others. “I pray for all people, people who have died, the living, people who are troubled, people crying, people fighting,” says Jume, a refugee from Myanmar living in the US state of Texas. ”This Ramadan, I pray for the health and future for my kids in America and Thailand.” Despite the emotional hardship of being so far from some of her children and having a daughter who is frequently hospitalized because of a heart condition, Jume says the Islamic fasting month brings her hope. “I’m happy. I fast, I read the Koran and I pray. Happiness is believing in God.” UNHCR/ Dina Awad

Day 11

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Day 11: Mostafa sits on the back of a motorbike clutching a bag of food. A volunteer with the Lebanese humanitarian aid group, Save the Grace, he and his friend zoom around Beirut, collecting food donated by restaurants and bakeries for families who cannot afford much for the evening meal during Ramadan. “I believe our culture needs to change. Too many people throw away food and we want to stop this, especially as now in Lebanon there are many people in need of help. All the youth should get together to help Syrian refugees – and poor Lebanese families, too,” says Mostafa.   UNHCR / Christina Farah

Day 12

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Day 12: Afghan refugee weavers at a carpet factory in the Pakistani city of Attock, sit on the dastarkhuwan, the dining mat, for Iftar. The weavers eat a humble meal of dates, fresh fruit, bread and potato curry.   After a day of hard work on the carpet looms, one of them remarks, “Nothing is better than breaking the hot summer fast with a bowl of chilled, fresh water.” UNHCR / Duniya Aslam Khan

Day 13

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Day 13: Yusuf, 15, arrived in Egypt nine days ago with his parents.  Here, he stands outside the Syrian restaurant where he works in Cairo.  Although Egypt has its own problems, he feels safer here than in Syria, where his home area was shelled. “Thank God nothing happened to anyone in my family. We decided to go to Damascus, get passports and leave,” he said. But he misses Syria and the big family gatherings at Ramadan. Yusuf says he would get together on a farm for the evening meal, or iftar, with his five brothers and more than 50 other relatives. The women cooked from early morning and the entire family would gather around a large table and eat lamb and meat dishes. “After dinner, three of my uncles would pray at the mosque and everyone else would drink tea and coffee, eat Syrian nuts, talk about work, laugh and smoke cigarettes while listening to [Lebanese singer] Fayrouz and sometimes watching Syrian Ramadan soap operas,” Yusuf said. Reflecting on his days in Cairo, he said: “I’m sad, disappointed. I feel like life is only work and home. I feel that life is meaningless. I don’t see my parents or family. I go home at 3am every day and come back at 2pm to work.” UNHCR / Shawn Baldwin

Day 14

14

Day 14: Syrian refugee, Mona, 14, lives with her parents and five younger siblings in Beirut, Lebanon. Mona says that her family decided to flee Syria the day their neighbor was killed in front of their house. She and her extended family of over 40 people now live in 2 makeshift buildings in Beirut. “We were happy in Syria. We didn’t have any problems getting food,” her mother says.  Her father now struggles to support the family with the money he earns from recycling plastic, cardboard and clothes. The food they eat for iftar comes mostly from charity. After breaking the fast in the evenings, the family gathers around the TV to watch the latest news from back home.  UNHCR / S. Baldwin

Day 15

15

Day 15: Abdul is an Afghan refugee who works as a carpet weaver in Attock, Pakistan. By day, he weaves carpets in a factory and in the evenings, he prepares exotic Afghan cuisine for the family of the factory owner. “It’s not only the spices that give taste to the food, the passion of the cook adds flavour too.  I cook with my heart and soul. According to our belief, a person who serves Iftar or cooks for a fasting person will get greater rewards from God.” UNHCR /  Duniya Aslam Khan

Day 16

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Day 16: During Ramadan Somali refugee, Amina, 42, considers herself lucky to be able to cook for others. A mother of 7 and foster mother to 4 more, she came to Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp in 2006 from Mogadishu, Somalia. “In the mornings I go to a class to learn leather working. In the afternoon, I go home and prepare to break the fast. I have a great big pot that we all share from. There are 18 of us. I cook whatever God puts in my pot.”  UNHCR / Brendan Bann

Day 17

17

Day 17: Foddiye (left) and her husband currently host 7 Syrian refugee families rent free on their land in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. She picks vegetables from her garden for Iftar with Abou (right), a Syrian refugee. Abou explains his situation, “It’s so difficult to be far from your family and country during Ramadan. But God willing we came to Lebanon and got to know Foddiye and her family and we are so happy living with them. We live together as one family and eat all of the Ramadan meals together.” Foddiye agrees, “It reminds me of Ramadans of 20 years ago when all of my family would eat Iftar together. This is the most beautiful Ramadan I have spent in 20 years.” UNHCR / Elena Dorfman

Day 18

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Day 18: Sula (blue head scarf), 12, could easily get away with not fasting during Ramadan, but she and most of her young friends are determined to fast anyway. Today they are painting decorations on the outside walls of the community bathrooms in their district of Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. “Doing this project helps us keep our minds off fasting,” says Sula, a refugee from a village outside of Dara’a, Syria who just finished painting a big, pink jelly fish. She and all the young children are proud to be adding a splash of colour and their own personal touch to their home away from home. UNHCR / Jared Kohler

Day 19

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Day 19: Fardosa, 28, is an Oromo  refugee from Ethiopia, currently living in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. “I am a catering student and celebrating Ramadan this month. So far it’s going well, but it’s a challenge to cook during the day when we’re supposed to fast because we normally taste the food as we learn to prepare it. I’ve resisted the temptation so many times, it strengthens my faith. The food we prepare here is special – pizza, njera, mandazi and samosas – not the normal food we have in our homes.  Because I can’t taste the food while I’m cooking, I always put some to the side for me and my brother for when we break the fast in the evenings.”  UNHCR /Brendan Bannon

Day 20

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Day 20: Kahie, 27, a Somali refugee who has lived in Dadaab refugee camp since 1991, washes his feet before praying. “I am lucky to have a job working as a translator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the camp. I usually break my fast by sharing meals with friends and neighbours who don’t have as much as I do. I feel like my Muslim brothers and sisters, and even those that are not Muslims, are closer to me than ever during this month.” UNHCR / Brendan Bannon

Day 21

21

Day 21: For almost six months, this cell in Thailand’s Ayutthaya immigration detention centre has been home to about 20 Rohingya men. They fled communal tensions in Myanmar’s Rakhine state earlier this year, enduring 16 days on a boat with little food and water. By the time they landed on the Thai coast, many were starving, dehydrated and sick. Now they spend their days praying, crying, hoping for a future. “Ramadan is a holy and peaceful month, but last year we couldn’t pray because of the fighting,” lamented Kamal, 22, whose brother was killed in last year’s violence in Sittwe, Myanmar. “Although we are now inside a cell, we have freedom to pray.” Kamal is thankful for the understanding shown by immigration detention centre staff and the local Muslim community, which has been providing food for iftar. For Eid he has one simple wish: “To go to a place where we can move freely, work and survive.” UNHCR / Vivian Tan

Day 22

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Day 22: “In Timbuktu, we had everything, fish from the river, food from the garden and free spices. Most importantly, though, we had peace,” says internally displaced Malian, Sada, 50.  “Here in Bamako we have nothing.” Sada and 12 of her family members came to Bamako 8 months ago, after living under Islamist rule in Timbuktu for almost a year. “I sold all my jewelry so I could pay to transport my family here. Everything I have left now goes to rent. We rely on others for food. To other Muslims I say, put your faith in the almighty. Whether you are poor, or away from home, or hungry, you will never be poor in faith!” UNHCR /Thomas Martinez

Day 23

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Day 23: Nigerian refugee, Akeem, 33, has lost a lot in life. He lost his father to violence in Nigeria and afterwards, he says, his mother died from a broken heart. Sadly his wife was killed by a landmine, leaving their twin daughters to grow up without a mother. Violence forced him to flee his homeland for Costa Rica in December 2011. Akeem, who works as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant in San José, says he is focusing on forgiveness this Ramadan. His rigorous work schedule does not allow him to observe Ramadan as he would like to, but he says that the temptation he faces working in a restaurant all day is another test that makes him a spiritually stronger person. UNHCR/ Jose Diaz

Day 24

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Day 24: In Mindanao in the southern Philippines, internally displaced sisters, Rowena, 14, Miriam, 8, and Laika, 7, have been forcibly displaced countless times during their young lives. Most recently the family was forced to flee during Ramadan. Growing up in a conflict prone area is never easy, especially for young girls who must help their father earn a living. “We can’t just wait for food assistance, and anyway it’s never enough. We need to earn income so we fish. Some of what we catch is for the family to eat and the rest is sold at the markets,” says Rowena. “We’re helping our parents, but the river is also our playground” adds Laika. UNHCR / Saima Sambutuan

Day 25

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Day 25: Yahya arranges his freshly made qatayef, sweet pancakes traditionally served during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan in the Middle East. He was a baker back in Syria and now that Ramadan has arrived in Jordan’s Za’atri refugee camp, he’s putting his skills to use. With drops of sweat rolling off the end of his nose, he leans over the hotplate and pours batter mix from a pitcher onto the griddle in small even circles. He only cooks one side and watches carefully until it has cooked. Next he flips the pancakes and leaves them to cool before adding sweet fillings. When folded, they are ready to eat. “I put some rose water in the batter,” he says. Despite being far from his war-torn home, this is one tradition that makes Ramadan in a foreign country more bearable for Yahya. UNHCR/J. Kohler

Day 26

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Day 26: Displaced Malian, Salimato, 51, and her family, live in an abandoned grade school in Mali’s capital, Bamako. They have lived in three homes in three months, and after Ramadan they will have to find yet another. “The landlord has let us live here during the month of fasting, but after that, I don’t know where we’ll go.” Originally from Gao, she fled  1200 kilometers east to Bamako, in April 2011, as separatist rebels descended upon the city. “I have some family here in Bamako, but they can’t afford to support me. It’s challenged my faith. I pray to the almighty for his mercy, and I ask that all Muslims support each other. I thank every person who has spent even a single franc to support us. They are in my prayers.” UNHCR/Thomas Martinez

Day 27

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Day 27: Mubarak, 28, was studying to be a nurse in his native Somalia when militants tried to forcibly recruit him. Fearing for his safety, he fled through Ethiopia and Sudan to Libya, where he paid for a place on a smuggler’s boat to Malta. He was eventually granted humanitarian protection by the authorities and now works as a freelance translator in the centre where he lived on his arrival. At sunset, Mubarak will join more than 100 other asylum-seekers in the island’s main mosque for a free Ramadan meal offered by the Islamic Centre. Mubarak dreams of being able to return one day to Somalia to work as a doctor. UNHCR /Darrin Zammit Lupi

Day 28

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Day 28: Filipina, Jehan, 13, has been forcibly displaced inside the Philippines several times since the age of three. “I would like to go to school, but we don’t have any money,” she says. Jehan’s father works as a labourer while her mother is a street vendor. “My parent’s income is just enough for our food. When they go to work, I take care of my brother. I like to play, but I don’t have time for that. I also do the laundry and prepare iftar during Ramadan. I don’t like to complain, because I know Allah has a better plan for us.” UNHCR / Saima Sambutuan

Day 29

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Day 29: Somali refugee, Osman, 23, studies secretarial work in the Youth Education Project classroom in Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. “I fled Somalia and arrived in the camp in 1991 and haven’t left since. This is a good Ramadan because I’m studying. In the Koran the prophet says that you have to study even if you have to go as far as China to do so. Having an education is like having light in your house. I encourage people to study whether it is Islamic or secular study.” UNHCR /Brendan Bannon

Day 30

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Day 30: Displaced Ousmane breaks the fast in his home in Bamako, Mali, eating millet porridge with his son, Binari, 7, while his other son Alpha, 11, takes a nap. Ousmane, his wife and their 7 children fled violence in Timbuktu, in the north of the country in April 2012. “Ramadan is a time for introspection, you leave the doors of your mind open to God and you ask him for what you wish the most,” says Ousmane.  “This year, I have asked him to give us a good President, who will re-establish peace in the country, so that we can return home.” The second round of the presidential elections is scheduled to take place on August 11th. UNHCR / Hélène Caux

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With special thanks to UNHCR for allowing us to repost these images.

To read, see, or hear more submissions in our Representations of Displacement series click here.

For more pieces reflecting on the roles of faith in displacement, click here.

 

 

 

 

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