2011 FotoVisura Grant
“Before the war our life was good, we had four little girls. I learned to farm when I was a girl in Somalia. We got separated when the war came to our home, the home where my parents were killed. We started running, and the older girls ran away on their own. It was too dangerous for me to go back. Bullets were flying. I was afraid of losing the two children I was carrying, may God help me. I carried them both out of Somalia…” Arbai Barre Abdi, 2004.
These images are glimpses into the last eight years that I have known Arbai and her family. We first met at the Atlanta airport, when she and her four children arrived in the United States. Until then, Arbai and her family lived in a refugee camp in Kenya.
Arbai is part of the Bantu tribe, one of the most marginalized tribes in Somalia. She was forced to flee with her family to Kenya when civil war erupted, and lived in the refugee camps in Kenya for thirteen more years. In 2004, Arbai and her family were part of a massive resettlement effort, when nearly13, 000 Somali Bantu refugees were relocated throughout the United States. The Bantu, who were denied access to education and jobs while living in the refugee camps, were almost completely untouched by modern life. Few could read, write or speak English, and most had never seen a light switch, a telephone or a set of stairs.
Over the past decade, Clarkston, a former railroad town outside of Atlanta, has been transformed into the Ellis Island of the South for refugees from every corner of the globe. It is estimated that 1 in 3 of Clarkston’s residents are immigrants and over sixty languages are now spoken in this small Southern town. Refugees come to Clarkston from a myriad of cultures suffering the effects of protracted civil wars and massive human suffering: Somalia, Sudan, Burma, Bosnia, Iraq, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, just to name a few. Over 71% of the refugees in Clarkston are female, and all of those, as implied by their refugee status, are survivors of civil conflict, war, trauma, rape and/or genocide.
In 2004, having traveled thousands of miles for the promise of a new start, Arbai arrived in Clarkston, Georgia. She was filled with tremendous hope for a better life, for herself and her children. I met Arbai while working as a still photographer on a PBS documentary about refugee resettlement in America. Although, the film wrapped in 2005, I continued visiting Arbai and her family every weekend since. It is 2011 and I still visit them almost every weekend.
It is difficult to put into words the relationship that has developed over the years. It’s certainly one that goes far beyond photographer/subject. They have become family to me and I to them. Arbai has had three more daughters since she arrived to the United States in 2004. The youngest, Medina, was just born in December 2011. Arbai’s daughter Khadija, who was 18 when she arrived, now has four children, the youngest of which was born in November 2011. Watching these children grow and being able to document them with portraits every year has become a lifelong personal project that has changed my life in ways I could have never imagined. Here’s our story so far.
Bryan Meltz, 2011 FotoVisura Grant Finalist