“Artists are the documenters of their time,” says Mohamad Hafez, curator of the exhibition UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage

UNPACKED, which opened at the Keller Center on May 2 to accompany the opening of the newly redesigned Center, is the work of Hafez, a Syrian-born architect and artist who lives and works in New Haven Pickard Chilton. Hafez, along with colleague Ahmed Badr, an Iraqi-born writer and student at Wesleyan University, and Fellow at the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life, documented ten stories of Middle Eastern and African refugees who left homes and possessions to flee violence in their countries of origin. The exhibition is a startling and moving exploration of home, memories, and the power of place.

The exhibited pieces—eight on display at the Keller Center and one at the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation—emerge from open, upturned suitcases donated by families of immigrants, Italian, Jewish, Mexican, German and Irish immigrants, who wanted to share their legacy. Within each is a fabricated cube of concrete, torn open to reveal the remains of someone’s home, an underground space that served as a classroom, a streetscape. Images online barely do justice to the intricate detail of everyday practical objects and ornaments, and the intimacy of seeing the pieces in 3-D. Viewing the miniature, doll-house scenes ranged along the south-facing wall of the Keller Center, separated, as if isolated in time and space, by floor-to-ceiling windows in the magnificently refurbished building, heighten the sense of precious cargo. As if each is a memory held aloft—painfully, lovingly—in the consciousness of the one whose hand carried the suitcase.

Hafez came to the US in 2003 to study architecture at Iowa State University. The son of an upper-middle class family of well-educated professionals, he spent his early childhood exposed to an international society in Saudi Arabia, where his father worked as a physician. The terms of his visa, during the first travel ban that targeted Muslims, following the September 11 attacks, prohibited him from leaving the US. For eight years he was effectively exiled from home. 

Mohamad Hafez hosted an artist's reception on May 3, as part of the Keller Center Grand Opening.
Mohamad Hafez hosted an artist's reception on May 3, as part of the Keller Center Grand Opening.

While at work late one night on a student project, Hafez was inspired to use his model-making design skills to recreate the landscape of the city he desperately missed. Later, he constructed six-foot walls with ‘graffiti,’ text from the Quran to express affirmations of hope. The effort “pushed him into new ways of working” as an artist.

With the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011, his artmaking took on heightened urgency. Damascus is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Its architecture reflects Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic influences; ancient landmarks and shrines representing sacred sites of diverse communities and faiths. To cope with his grief over the horror of what was happening and to convey the scale of destruction, Hafez used found objects as raw materials, enlivening with tactile textures, color, and form the singularity of the city’s cultural markers. 

“I spend 12-18 months creating details that keep the world of my city alive,” says Hafez.

His parents fled Damascus for Dubai; his brother-in-law escaped to Sweden, leaving a successful architectural practice in Damascus to make a new life for his family. Their experiences of danger and loss inspired Hafez to tell the stories of refugees, to counter the current dehumanizing and divisive narrative—so contrary to the once proudly proclaimed ethos of the US as a beacon of hope, the land of opportunity—that characterizes refugees as parasitic invaders who have nothing to contribute, who take jobs and other resources from ‘real’ Americans.

Listening, learning, and experiencing art and policy.

The first piece as you enter the Keller Center represents a room in the Hafez family home that his parents built with their life savings. In the audio recording that narrates the piece, Hafez relates his childhood fascination with buildings and interior design. He accompanied his mother when she chose fabric for custom-built furnishings that graced the “salon” where their large circle of family and friends gathered. This scene, more spare than others, with an elegant, but comfortable and capacious sky-blue baroque sofa, a crystal chandelier overhead, and Persian rug on the Italian marble floor, forces attention to the large holes, made by artillery shells, that pierce the walls. The dust-covered sofa remains intact—in memory, and perhaps, in fact—but the home has long been abandoned. 

The contents of another suitcase tell the story of a child in Baghdad who was kidnapped and killed. The scene is the young boy’s bedroom. In the foreground a tricycle is at rest by a wall; standing in the center of the room is a highboy dresser with the top drawers open, garments exposed, as if someone opened the drawers in a great hurry and grabbed whatever came to hand. As in the other pieces, artillery blasts have riddled the walls like notes in an erratic musical score, and left a layer of concrete and plaster dust over everything, including the body of the child, next to the tricycle, partially covered with a white blood-stained cloth. The narrator of the story, Maher, a photographer and young Iraqi refugee, created a photo of his younger brother’s face to represent the kidnapped child being grabbed and terrorized. The photo is framed and hangs prominently on the wall, like a family portrait, to complete the scene.

One of the most visually compelling scenes is of a residential street in Damascus, line with a centuries old stone wall. The wall’s turquoise patina is redolent of jewels, of ancient sacred sites, with heavy, ornately decorated wooden doors leading to private homes, their doorknobs fashioned of tiny brass or copper ornaments. Over one door is an oval-shaped inlay with familial or spiritual significance; beside the other door, a couple of flower boxes, empty, are affixed to the wall; above them is a small balcony, from which one of the inhabitants might have reached to place delicate items of laundry and the small woven basket hanging from an outstretched line. As Hafez noted during his talk, walls like this shielded wealth or poverty from view and maintained a sense of equity among neighbors. The simple, everyday peace and beauty of the scene is marred by the white Peugeot, with government license plates, parked in front of the wall—one of the notorious unmarked cars used by state security forces. The narrator, Amjad, tells the story of his neighbors’ son being arrested and taken in such a car. The family sold all their belongings to pay for his release. After the payment was delivered, their son’s lifeless body was returned to them.

UNPACKED tells stories in more ways than one.

A viewer thinking about Amjad, his neighbors, and other residents of this ancient walled city might imagine what it was like to take one, two, or five last looks before being forced to walk away forever – the memory of their home’s beauty and sanctity marred by the ubiquitous, unmovable Peugeot.

The pockmarked walls of uninhabited rooms, the dust-covered furnishings, appliances, shelves of books, family heirlooms, and mementos appear again and again as an unsettling caution of the fragility of peaceful civil society, the membrane that separates political conflagration from the sanctity of domestic life—easy to forget in a country that spans the length of a continent.

It is no surprise that Joan W. Harris, president of the Irving Harris Foundation, whose support helped launch the Harris School of Public Policy in 1988, and COO Misho Ceko each, independently, learned about UNPACKED and wanted to bring the exhibition to Harris Public Policy for the opening of the Keller Center.

The message is central to the mission of Harris Public Policy and signals the broadening, deepening scope of its vision. For many years, the focus of Harris Public Policy was more domestic; in recent years, the school, its footprint and impact, has expanded rapidly. Just a few years ago, the student population was 300; next year, it is expected to reach 1,000. More than half of Harris students come from countries outside the US, including a new student to the program, an Obama scholar from Afghanistan, whose brother was assassinated two weeks before he arrived in Chicago with his wife and three children.

Misho Ceko introduces Hafez.

In his introduction to the talk Hafez gave for the opening, Ceko noted that “while politicians weaponize the word 'refugee,' Mohamad Hafez works to humanize refugees.” His work exemplifies the reminder of a Harris faculty member that there is a human being behind every data point. And his work is a reminder that the challenge of humanizing refugees begins with acknowledging one’s own humanity.

Ceko views UNPACKED as a part of a collection of art and stories that inspire Harris students to tell their own stories, and to learn about and honor the stories of individuals who make up the communities and countries they will serve. Harris Public Policy’s evidence-based, data-driven, experiential approach is a critical contribution to the field that will be spread globally when students return to their countries.

Hafez closed his talk by saying “if we remain bystanders, the extremist is the loudest person in the room. I want to be the architect who builds bridges, not walls.”