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Seeing through others' eyes

Asylum seekers in Bangkok tell their stories with photos

One of the photos in the exhibition One of the photos in the exhibition
  • Philip Bader and Joe Torres, Bangkok
  • Thailand
  • April 17, 2012
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It was a simple idea, really, but one that would produce unexpected results.

Jesuit Refugee Service Asia Pacific (JRSAP) has for three decades ministered to the needs of a steady stream of refugees from across the region seeking freedom and opportunity denied to them at home.

To cap its commemoration of 30 years of service, JRS enlisted eight asylum seekers from Cambodia, China, Iran, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to participate in a project that would give them an opportunity to tell their stories in their own way and in their own voice.

They were given point-and-shoot cameras, two hours of training and two months to put into pictures a narrative of their lives in the Thai capital.

Molly Mullen, regional communications assistant at JRSAP, spearheaded the project by bringing some cameras donated during a trip home to the United States.

“We want people in Bangkok and in the region to understand that refugees and asylum seekers … are completely capable of telling their own stories,” she said.

“People hear the word refugee a lot and they don’t really know what we’re talking about,” she said, adding that “there are people here from all over the world trying to save their lives and find safety in Bangkok.”

She said that photography offered an accessible and effective medium for asylum seekers to connect with others and share their experiences.

“There’s no language barrier with photography. People can really get across what they want to say with one photo and they’ve done that with this photo exhibition, and I think that it’s worked really well for them.

Phea, a former freelance journalist from Cambodia and member of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, ran foul of the government after publishing two books about political corruption and human rights abuses in his country.

The Ministry of Education banned the books and announced that it was seeking the author for questioning. Phea fled to Bangkok in July 2010.

“I am very happy with this project because I think it is the history of my life. I can take a picture and keep it for a long time for my wife, for my children, when I have a family,” he said.

“I want somebody, especially the human rights organization in Thailand or in the world, to know the life of an asylum seeker.”

Yi, a school teacher and mother from northeast China, endured years of harassment, emotional trauma and physical torture by Chinese authorities bent on forcing her to renounce her practice of Falun Gong.

Falun Gong began in China in 1992 as a spiritual tradition combining moral teachings, meditation and physical exercise similar to qigong. It was banned by the Chinese government in 1999 and many practitioners have been imprisoned and tortured.

Abandoned by her husband, who also took custody of their child, Yi came to Bangkok in 2007. The photo project offered her the opportunity to speak on behalf of those who were not able to escape as she did.

“With these pictures, I just want to tell others what is the daily life of a Falun Gong refugee,” she said.

Now in Bangkok awaiting official recognition by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Phea and Yi, along with six other asylum seekers from Iran, Sri Lanka and Pakistan who took part in the photography program, struggle to find their way in a foreign city where they have no legal status, few resources and face daily fears of arrest and deportation.

JRSAP is no stranger to the issue of refugees.

For three decades they have served those in need, following the principles of founder Father Pedro Arrupe SJ, who saw refugees as “a challenge we cannot ignore” and the mission of the organization to “accompany, serve and defend the rights of refugees.”

Fr Bernard Hyacinth Arputhasamy SJ, regional director of JRSAP, said the refugee issue has become more political in recent years, and that he understood the importance of a nation’s sovereignty and security.

“Thailand has been very hospitable, playing host to refugees for more than four decades. So how can we balance the legality with an ethic of hospitality?” he said.

“The refugees come, we should never forget, with their human dignity still intact. How do we respect that? They have resources, cultural resources. Their history, their tradition. How can we listen to their stories and welcome them as equal human beings?”

It is this dignity that Mullen sees as a fundamental issue for the photography program, and for the thousands of other asylum seekers living in Bangkok.

She says that many refugees have described themselves as ghosts in Bangkok, “that they live in hiding” and are not able to play a substantial part in Thai society.

“I feel like these photos are a really great way for them to push their way into Bangkok at large,” she said.

“I’m hoping that through this project the idea of ghosts can slowly start to diminish in the refugee community in Bangkok.”

Photographs from Phea, Yi and fellow participants will be on display in the exhibition See What I See: Photographs by and about urban asylum seekers in Bangkok, at Toot Yung Gallery on January 28 at 6pm.
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