Photographer brings refugee’s stories to life

New exhibit at theCenter for Independent Artists focuses on the lives and tales of local refugees

Erin Adler

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, the state has become a new home for at least 70,000 refugees during the last 25 years.

And photographer Jane Kramer knows each and every one of these refugees has a story worth sharing.

Because refugees must demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution” to leave their country and attain refugee status, many of these stories are violent and heartbreaking.

During her six years teaching English as a second language in a nursing assistant training program in St. Paul, Kramer had the opportunity to meet many refugee women. Hearing their stories and admiring the women’s strength, she said she wanted to share their lives with others through photos and the women’s own words.

“I wanted to get to know the refugee women better and share what I loved about these people,” Kramer said.

Noticing their humor, wit, optimism and hard work, she said she was also “hoping to find what the women’s secret was” in staying so hopeful despite continued adversity.

The results are 15 black- and-white photographs of four refugee women and one asylee. Currently on display at the Center for Independent Artists, the exhibit, Photographs and Stories of Refugee Women: Perseverance, Dignity, Strength, Hope and Peace, clearly demonstrates the complexity of the refugee experience, from the triumphs of buying a house to the frustration of affording insurance or finding a job. It also uncovers many unique, gender-related challenges these women confront daily.

The five featured women fled various geographical regions and countries for many reasons. Perseverance fled Somalia because of civil war, spending eight years in a Kenyan refugee camp along the way.

Dignity and Strength both have Ethiopian roots and were formerly employed in the radio and television industries, respectively. Hope, an Oromo woman also from Ethiopia, is the only single woman in the group.

Finally, Peace is a member of the Karen tribe in Burma; her parents were members of a persecuted military rebel group.

Kramer noted that, for the most part, all of the women showed tremendous candor in telling their stories. She recalled that during their first interview, Peace spoke for three and a half hours about her life in Burma, the frightening experience of fleeing and her life here. Peace wanted to tell her story because so many others were unable to tell theirs, Kramer said.

Capturing candid photographs, however, was at times more difficult. Four of the five women initially found “acting natural” in front of the camera to be challenging, Kramer said, but were able to relax over time.

As the project continued, Kramer, along with two of the women’s husbands, became wary of using the women’s real names; Kramer then decided to create pseudonyms for each woman.

“I tried to get at the essence of each woman, what that person was all about, when I came up with the names,” she said.

When she asked the women their thoughts on their pseudonyms, each woman agreed to the name Kramer chose.

“Their reactions were really neat. When I asked them what they thought of the name, they were each like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s me,’ ” she said.

In the case of Peace, her pseudonym was more than simply appropriate. When she heard the name Kramer decided on, she explained that her given name (in her language) actually meant the exact same thing, Kramer said.

The photographs have traveled to five locations around the state, including this location. Next, they will travel to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. As the city has recently experienced an influx of refugees, Kramer said she hopes the exhibit will be timely and educational.

She said that, thus far, responses to the exhibit have been positive.

“I’ll always hear people saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t know,’ when they hear the stories of the refugee women,” she said.

“It’s been rewarding to know that (people who see the exhibit) will carry an appreciation of these women with them as they go on with their lives. That was my goal.”