Claire Kalikman

A new multimedia exhibit in the Elm City seeks to humanize the world’s refugees.

The exhibition, which is on display at Artspace at 50 Orange St., features installations, sculpture, audio, music and documentaries created by Middle Eastern refugees or those with deep ties to the Middle East. The opening event on Sunday also featured a documentary by Maher Mahmood and music from Sharq Attack, a group that performs Middle Eastern music. The event and showcase, a collaboration between Artspace and several other government and nonprofit agencies, aimed to also show refugees that they would have a home in the Elm City.

“We want to go past all the rhetoric, and do what it takes to make another human being feel comfortable and warm,” said Ann O’Brien, director of community engagement for the Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, a nonprofit that resettles refugees in Connecticut.

Chris George, the executive director of IRIS, said during the event that the world is currently facing the worst refugee crisis since World War II: Twenty-two million people are refugees, and five million of them are Syrian. It is hard to conceptualize who these people are, he said, adding that this exhibit seeks to do so.

The agencies came together because the Hugo Kauder Society, a nonprofit that promotes awareness of composer Hugo Kauder’s music, and Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts both had grants from the State Office of the Arts to showcase work by refugees. They approached IRIS because it works directly with many refugees in the state.

The aim of the exhibit is to expand the definition of what it means to be a refugee beyond just war, violence and poverty, but also music, art and culture, George said. During a panel discussion on Sunday, Syrian-born artist and architect Mohamad Hafez told a story of being a young photographer in Syria and how a policeman seized his camera while he was photographing an older man and smashed it on the ground.

“In my country, we were allowed to have guns, but we are not allowed to have cameras,” he said. “Because with a gun you can go ‘one, two, three’ and it’s over, but a camera is more permanent and powerful: you can show the world what is happening.”

Hafez’s installation is the central feature of the exhibit. It uses sculptures of luggage filled with recreations of rooms and facades bombed out or riddled with bullet holes, accompanied by audio of refugees telling stories about why they left their home country and how they came to America.

Upon viewing the exhibit, attendees said they were pleased to learn more about refugee stories.

“I am a big fan of art as a way to speak a message and get a voice out,” said New Haven native Kimberly Kyles.

Another viewer, Yi-Chun Tricia Lin, called the showcase “extraordinarily moving, heart-wrenching and sobering as a viewer.”

Although the exhibit’s focus was more personal than political, George vehemently criticized the current government’s executive orders that aimed to reduce the number of refugees accepted into the U.S. each year, and the June Supreme Court decision that allowed the reduced program to move forward. He added that government officials had valid concerns about security, but that those were used wrongly discriminate against Muslims. Through projects like this, IRIS hopes to help people understand the real refugee experience. There are 900 refugees in Connecticut, and IRIS has worked with 475 of them, George said.

When asked about his future plans for the exhibit, Hafez said this is just the beginning.

“My goal is to take this exhibit on the road, to all 50 states,” he said. “I don’t want people to forget what has happened.”

IRIS was founded in 1982.

Claire Kalikman