Before making the trip home after finals week, Gannon University students are invited to visit the Cathedral of Saint Paul on Sixth Street to experience a photography exhibit by Maitham Basha-Agha titled “Rust Belt New Americans: A Showcase of Erie’s Refugee Population.”
The Erie Reader photojournalist, in collaboration with Erie photographer Erica Whiting, aspires to tell the stories of select refugees who have resettled in the Erie community.
The project, which took roughly three months to complete, displays not only a photo of each refugee but also a detailed biography of the journey that led the individual to the United States and his or her current situation upon resettling.
Erie’s refugee population has continued to grow in recent years as individuals from war-torn nations such as the Congo, Somalia, Syria and Iraq have escaped their homelands and been forced to relocate.
As new restrictive legislation regarding immigration and refugee resettlement has been discussed and implemented by the Trump administration, the importance of exhibits such as Basha-Agha’s continues to grow.
“These are not just the faces of Erie or the Rust Belt, they are the faces of America,” the Erie Reader has stated. “They must not be turned away, they must not be marginalized.”
Basha-Agha said that he has always been inspired by people’s stories and believes each individual has a narrative to tell.
An immigrant himself, Basha-Agha claims that throughout his photojournalism career he has always been drawn to social issues.
He began photographing in January 2014 after picking up the hobby from Erie Times News photographer Jarid Barringer.
Basha-Agha returned to his home country of Iraq the same year he picked up the skill in order to take photos of Syrian refugees who were living in northern Iraq.
He said that many individuals were not comfortable with this task due to security concerns caused by the militant group ISIS, but nevertheless, he wanted to fulfill his goals of getting the photographs.
Basha-Agha argues that his inspiration for his most recent project largely came from his own experiences.
“Coming here as a refugee, I know what it is like living in America,” Basha-Agha said in an earlier interview with Gannon Knight editor-in-chief Kelsey Ghering. “From the struggles of learning the English language to cold snow days to attending school.”
Basha-Agha also said that he strived to photograph individuals from all walks of life, from those who were successful to those who were struggling.
One refugee highlighted in the exhibit is Abdulsatar Alkaiali, a Syrian refugee who lost his arm after being shot 17 times by a Syrian Army guard. After being transported to a hospital by strangers and losing a large amount of blood, doctors were forced to amputate.
In the biographical information listed with Alkaiali’s photograph, it is noted that Alkaiali now lives in Erie with his wife and two children.
His wife is in the process of learning English through the Erie International Institute while he is working part-time at Splash Lagoon.
Senior occupational therapy major Taylor Bellina participated in Gannon’s Basket of Blessings project in the fall, which partners an on-campus organization with a refugee family who had recently moved to Erie.
Bellina prepared a basket of food and toys with her sorority, Alpha Sigma Tau, as part of the program.
Upon seeing Basha-Agha’s exhibit online via the Erie Reader website, Bellina recognized the father of the refugee family whom she had met with in the fall when delivering her group’s basket.
“After hearing his story, I have an incredible amount of respect for his will to obtain safety and security for his family,” Bellina said. “I will never be able to fully understand the hardships [his family] endured, but this experience has given me an enlightened sense of awareness.”
Sophomore computer science major Jeff Edmondson also experienced Basha-Agha’s exhibit online and remarked that the experience helped change his perspective on refugees.
“I think this is an important project because it shows the reality of what refugees have to face before they enter the United States,” Edmonson said. “It removes stereotypes that some people have about refugees as a group and shows individual stories.
“I would really recommend for other students to check out the exhibit, especially with today’s crazy politics.”
The traveling exhibit will be on display Monday – Friday, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. and Sunday mornings at the Cathedral of Saint Paul until May 31. It can also be accessed through the Erie Reader’s website.
Maitham Basha-Agha can be contacted through Facebook using his name or by Instagram by searching his handle @thetravelingiraqi.