Emerging Histories

Fleeing War, the Things They Carried

A little exhibit in the Netherlands reveals some basic truths about the humans behind the numbers in this age of massive immigration and refugee crises.

02.25.17 5:01 AM ET

AMSTERDAM—In the aftermath of a disaster it’s the little things that people recover from the wreckage of their lives that define their tragedy. We see the stories play out on the news in the United States all the time after what some would call acts of God—tornadoes, hurricanes, forest fires, earthquakes. From splintered homes we see a battered toy extracted or a water-soaked family album recovered, and the image touches us as we think of our own children, our own families.

Yet when the disaster is war or relentless repression, the work of men in some other country, the people and their suffering are reduced to numbers, to ethnicities, to faiths: abstractions that conceal their humanity.

Here in Amsterdam right now there is a small, elegant exhibit that focuses not on statistics but on some very human details about a handful of people who have survived the terrors of modern conflicts. Each of their stories is built around something that they brought—or tried to bring—with them on their exodus from lands at war and oppression.

Curated by Özkan Gölpinar and Nadette De Visser (a frequent contributor to The Daily Beast), “Emerging Histories” brings very special accounts of survival in Syria, but also in Yemen, in Iran, and in Zimbabwe. That the exhibit is in the Castrum Peregrini house, which served as a refuge for Jews, intellectuals, and artists hiding from the Nazis in World War II gives the experience even more of an edge.

One story, for instance, is of Fourat, a 7-year-old girl fleeing Mosul after its conquest by the so-called Islamic State. All she took with her from her home was her toy bunny. But it was raining as the procession of exhausted refugees made their way across the countryside toward Mount Sinjar, and the rain went on into the night. The wet bunny grew heavier and heavier, hour after hour, until by the next morning it was so bloated, so waterlogged, that Fourat simply couldn’t carry it anymore, and she had to leave it behind with the rest of everything and everybody she had known.

Nasser Fakhteh is 57 now, and much of his life was spent in Iranian prisons. When he was 17 he was jailed for political activism under the shah and for months his parents had no idea where he was. That was when his father bought a little shortwave radio to listen to news of the rest of the world on the BBC and the Voice of America—to listen to anything but the propaganda of the shah. Just before the ayatollahs took power in 1979, Nasser was released from prison, but four years later the new regime imprisoned him.

“Under the shah, things were predictable,” he recalled, but the jailors of the Islamic Republic used uncertainty as a tool of psychological torture. “The cell door would just swing open,” Nasser remembers. You could be killed at any time. “Randomness ruled. One person would be shot dead on the spot and the next could be set free.” In 1988, as everyone knew, some 5,000 political prisoners were summarily executed on the orders of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Nasser survived and went into exile, only returning to what was left of his home, briefly, 30 years later. His parents had died, the world he’d known was mostly gone. “When I saw my little sister again after all those years, she brought a little box with some of my father’s belongings. The radio was in that box. When I held it in my hands, it felt like I could embrace my father once more.”

Raqqah, a small Syrian city that ISIS conquered and made the capital of its would-be caliphate, is where 34-year-old Reem comes from. “People have been living there for generations in old sandstone buildings, and neighbors are friends,” she said. “It was as though a cloud of soot was thrown over my beloved city when the army of Daesh [ISIS] marched in. A shadow was cast over life in Raqqah… I no longer wanted to be outside in that world where you had to wear the niqab,” the full-face veil. A woman could be arrested by the religious police at any moment “for showing a sliver of black pants underneath your black gown.”

“In time,” Reem told the curators of Emerging Histories, “I stopped leaving the house altogether… I stayed at home. Studies stopped. Working stopped. Life stopped.” In the summer of 2015, something snapped, she said. She managed to put up a post on Facebook: “The dogs of the Caliphate should piss off.” Days later, she was nearly arrested, but somehow convinced the ISIS squad that appeared at her door and put a gun to her head that she was not who they thought she was. “When they finally left, my mother looked deeply into my eyes and said, very calmly, ‘If you don’t leave now, you will not be my daughter anymore.’”

At her apartment in Turkey, Reem held up what looked like a thin shawl. “That black cloth, the one you wear over your niqab, I kept it because I wanted to go back to Raqqah to visit my sickly mother. Now she is no longer here, so you can take it. I won’t go back.”

Rojda, 32, a music teacher from Aleppo whose school was destroyed, carries in her mind Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” but cannot bear to listen to it. “I only remember the sound of people in fear, the horrible sounds of crashing and screaming coming from the streets, the buildings… Only silence can dampen the horrible sounds of tragedy. And on that specific day two years ago… everything stopped. The music stopped. Darkness took over.”

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Havin, 34, is Kurdish from the much-fought-over town of Afrin in Syria. “We had our bags already packed in case we had to flee again suddenly. But one can never be fully prepared. When the bombs started to hit our house, we had to leave the backpacks in the hallway. It was destruction in the middle of the night… My brother died in that explosion.” The family was able to take his body away. “We buried him in a graveyard surrounded by pine trees. I used to gather the pine cones to put on his grave when I went to visit.”

Now, Havin takes three pine cones with her wherever she goes. “I miss the scent. If I could go back, the first thing I would do is visit my brother’s grave. There in the forest, I take a deep breath. That smell, I can’t describe it. Every step a new scent. It’s like walking in heaven.”

Jean Eduard, 25, is from Africa, his blood a mix of Egyptian, Zanzibari, Congolese and Belgian ancestors. It was his misfortune to grow up in a family that fled from one war to another in what are now the nations of Zambia and Zimbabwe, and finally wound up in South Africa, and his father’s journals about all these conflicts, and about the family, are what he holds on to now, along with an important lesson:

“Victimization is dangerous,” he says. “If everyone feels victimized, people become violent. It becomes an excuse to do whatever you want with impunity, because my violence stems from ‘my upbringing’ or ‘apartheid’ or whatever historic argument applies best. ‘Now I have the right to have what is yours, so I will take it from you.’”

Gölpinar and De Visser are only too aware of the American factor and the European politics that surround these issues.

“Our societies are in crisis, democracy is in crisis, and on top of it all the U.S., the world’s leading democracy, elected a con artist as its president,” said Gölpinar at the opening of the exhibit, which runs until March 10. “We are witnessing dictatorships in progress in several countries around the globe.”

De Visser put it another way. “This may be a good time for you to think about what your own story would be,” she said. “What spells out your family history? Where did it migrate from? Or, what did it take to stay, survive, and flourish?”