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Refugees Use Old-School Cameras To Show Kansas City Life Through New Eyes

Ubah Kariye
A photograph by Ubah Kariye in the Kansas City Library's exhibit 'Indisposable: KC Cultures.'

With the instant and reliable nature of cell-phone photography, most people have little need for disposable cameras. The old-school tools proved perfect, however, for a group of refugees documenting their new lives in Kansas City.

A show of their photography opens Friday at the Kansas City Public Library, in an exhibition called "Indisposable: KC Cultures."

The photographers originally came from countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Syria. Many of them settled in Kansas City less than a year ago.

“We gave them free reign to express what life is like for them now that they’re here in a safe place, rather than a camp or some other unsafe area,” says Rita Edmonds, a VISTA volunteer who spent the last year working with the Kansas City Public Library’s Refugee and Immigrant Services and Empowerment.

In a biographical statement as part of the project, one photographer, Hanan Ghashghosh, wrote that she hoped “to continue looking for good work, to live a good life.” Ghashgosh, who was born in Syria, fled to Jordan before resettling in Kansas City roughly nine months ago.

Another artist named Angeta, who worked as a teacher before fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo, said he wishes to “see peace and live peacefully.”

Those appear to be common goals, if the images on display are any indication.

“It was interesting how many pictures of children we got, because they’re often the pride and joy of the family,” says Edmond. “Lots of smiling faces.”

Credit Laurent Tuombe
This photograph in the Kansas City Library's exhibit 'Indisposable: KC Cultures,' was taken by Laurent Tuombe.

Edmonds says the exhibit organizers chose a mix of photos, some highlighting the differences in immigrant families, and some highlighting the similarities.

“I think most of them that participated were eager to do something that’s outside of what we normally ask them to do,” says Martin Okpareke, outreach manager for the Jewish Vocational Service, a migrant resettlement organization that worked with the library.

New refugees attend orientations to learn about joining the workforce and getting healthcare, along with, Okpareke says, “basic stuff like how to ride a bus, (or) how to dial 911.” Using cameras was, he says, “kind of empowering.”

Okpareke says fewer migrants have been entering the country in recent months.

“Our new arrival numbers have shrunk since this new administration,” he says. “Drastically.”

Despite that decline in newcomers, staffers at Jewish Vocational Services are providing more services to “secondary migrants” who come to Kansas City from places such as California, Maryland and Texas after leaving their home countries, says Lindsey Sharp, a social worker for language services at Kansas City Public Schools who also worked with the photographers.

“They come to Kansas City because the cost of living is better here, and they have a lot of community support,” Okpareke says.

Credit Ali Kaky
A photograph by Ali Kaky in the exhibit 'Indisposable: KC Cultures' at the Kansas City Public Library.

Though community plays an important role for refugees, many migrants remain segregated from the rest of the city. Sharp says she hopes visitors to the exhibit will be inspired to reach out to their new neighbors.

“I would want people to know how big a population of newcomers we have in Kansas City,” says Sharp. “I’d want the community to know this is a large population and we should engage them more.”

"Indisposable: KC Cultures" opens at 5:30 p.m. Friday, June 1, and runs through June 17 at the Kansas City Public Library’s Central Branch, 14 W. 10th St., Kansas City, Missouri, 64105. The photographs are also on display from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on June 23, World Refugee Day, at the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences’ Ricci Auditorium, 1730 Independence Ave., Kansas City, Missouri, 64106.

Claire Verbeck is a freelance contributor to KCUR. Find her on Twitter @TheVeebs.

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