When Lara Aburamadan started taking pictures in the Bay Area after moving here in March 2017, she wandered the streets of Berkeley and San Francisco “trying to find a familiarity, something I could connect to” , remembers the Palestinian journalist and artist.
She and her husband, photojournalist Jehad al-Saftawi, were 24-year-old newlyweds in 2016 when they left their home in Gaza to seek asylum in the United States. Life had become increasingly dangerous in a region scarred by decades of violence and the crushing indignities and militancy of life under Israeli occupation.
The young couple met author and McSweeney founder Dave Eggers while touring the West Bank that year with a group of writers, including Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon of Berkeley for their collective book of essays, “Kingdom of Olives and Ash”.
“I met Jehad and Lara and immediately felt like we had known each other for a long time,” Eggers recalled. He put them in touch with Berkeley immigration attorney Cara Jobson, who agreed to take their asylum case free of charge.
With only a few suitcases and their camera gear, al-Saftawi and Aburamadan arrived in Oakland after several months in New York to begin the formidable process facing displaced people around the world: rebuilding their lives from the ground up.
“I started using this hashtag, #RefugeeEye, whenever I posted my photographs (on social media)” from 2018, Aburamadan said in a joint video call with The Chronicle from the apartment of the couple in East Bay. “I was convinced that as a refugee I had a perspective. I needed to own this.
Four years later, that succinct phrase, an Internet-friendly reminder that the views of latecomers on the American question, has taken on even more meaning for them.
Aburamadan and al-Saftawi launched a nonprofit art gallery in San Francisco this month under the same name, Refugee Eye. The small but ambitious space at the front of the McSweeney Building on Valencia Street and its online presence (www.refugeeeye.org) are dedicated to exhibiting photographs and other artwork by refugees from around the world .
“Continuing to live after leaving everything behind is such a difficult experience to explain to people,” al-Saftawi said. “We want visual storytellers and critical thinkers to share what it’s like, the thoughts you have on an existential level, when you’re born and shaped in a place that’s very isolated from the rest of the world, and then try to understand your new life while continuing to process your prior reality. It’s very difficult.”
Images, the two believe, “can tell a story faster” and boost cross-cultural understanding.
Al-Saftawi’s stunning photographs, all taken in Gaza before he fled, are on display until May 8 for the gallery’s inaugural exhibition, “My Gaza: A City in Photographs.” The uncompromising images convey scenes of a suffering city – of war, grief, inertia and grief – and are taken from a powerful photo book he published in 2020. He plans to discuss of his photography during an artist talk at Refugee Eye on Wednesday, March 23.
When the gallery opened on March 12, visitors, including Eggers and his wife, novelist Vendela Vida, praised the enterprising and magnetic couple and studied al-Saftawi’s powerful images of a population that n haven’t known peace for generations. The infrastructure of Gaza City is in ruins. Its night sky is lit by aerial explosions.
Some photos were taken from the window of al-Saftawi and Aburamadan’s 11th-floor apartment, from where they broadcast Israel’s bombing of Gaza live in July 2014. In a country where independent media are rare, it was one of the few live testimonies of the devastation.
In one image, a young man’s hand holds a photo of his family in front of a pile of concrete rubble. His parents and six siblings were killed by an Israeli bombardment of their home in 2015.
“What Lara and Jehad can do as artists is put a human face on the suffering we all see on our television screens,” said Christine Trost, executive director of the Institute of Government Studies. from UC Berkeley.
Trost Church, All Souls Episcopal Parish of Berkeley, provides temporary housing for refugees, and she met the couple at Oakland International Airport upon their arrival. She recalled picking them up and being “shocked to see how incredibly young they both were, and also to see how incredibly brave and courageous they were in taking those steps to walk towards this unknown future”.
“I have immense admiration for their bravery and resilience,” she said.
As humanists and free thinkers, al-Saftawi said, they found that having “a perspective that is not biased towards one of the conflicting parties” was an incredibly difficult position to hold in a region so dominated by fiercely held ideologies. “Everything is so politicized. I tried for a long time to leave”, from 2012.
In Gaza, they were as adept at documenting Hamas extremism and what al-Saftawi calls “untalkable conservatism” as they were at showing Israel’s violation of Palestinian civil rights.
“They have a very, very strong asylum case,” Jobson said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to saying that people who are as open-minded as they are really have a hard time living in a place like Gaza with the grip that Hamas has on society in this moment.
“As I have come to know them over the past few years, I have seen that they are humanitarians through and through. They are always thinking about what they can do to improve the world, and that’s why they started Refugee Eye.
Aburamadan, who also paints, plans to show his work next at Refugee Eye, followed by rotating exhibitions featuring other artists every six weeks.
“We will have someone from Iran and then maybe someone from Yemen,” she said. “With the new waves of refugees from Afghanistan and now from Ukraine, we would also like to show their experiences.”
“My Gaza: a city in photographs”: Photography. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Wednesday and Friday to Saturday. Until May 8. Artist talk featuring Jehad al-Saftawi scheduled for 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, March 23. Free. Refugee Eye, 849 Valencia St., SF 646-468-0450. www.refugeeeye.org