A man named Mohamad Hafez created miniature, three-dimensional models protruding from suitcases as a way to help tell stories of refugees and the struggles so many of them have had to grapple with in recent years. Hafez was born in Damascus and grew up in Saudi Arabia, but he isn’t a refugee himself. He came to the U.S 14 years ago as a student and studied at Iowa State University, before the conflict, and later obtained a U.S green card. Now he is an architect based in New Haven, Connecticut, where he works with the firm Pickard Chilton specializing in glass skyscrapers and corporate buildings.
The intricate crafted models are recreations of 10 homes refugee families were forced to leave behind, and each visual component is accompanied by an audio piece in which each refugee tells the growling story of what happened.
In one model a car is covered with dust and rust, surrounded by debris scattered across the front of the house. Elsewhere, a bedroom is completely exposed to the elements, If you look closely, you can even see a little child’s shoes sticking out from beneath the rubble – attention to detail isn’t the word.
“We realized that we could captivate and hook people into these stories.”
The project is called UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage, created by Syrian artist Mohamad Hafez in collaboration with student and former Iraqi refugee Ahmed Badr.
The goal of the project, Hafez says, is to further humanize refugees, immigrants, and Muslims, and inspire people across the political spectrum to relate to them.
“In a divided society, if you speak politics, you are immediately dividing your audience,” he says. “We came together, Ahmed and I, and we wanted to do something that engages everybody from the far left to the far right in this great nation.”
Art, Hafez explains, can be a neutral platform — you can engage people without opening your mouth.
“By telling people’s stories through art, we realized that we could captivate and hook people into these stories,” he says.
Hafez chose suitcases as a medium because he’s been interested in the word “baggage” a medium that a lot of people could relate to, and show that the journey is never the whole story encapsulating everything emotional and physical that the word entails.
“All of us went through bumps in our life,” he says. “It does not define us. These labels — refugee, immigrant — they do not define us.”
“I came back to the United States from that trip with something really different in my art practice.”
Hafez became energized to change the narratives around refugees and immigrants when he realized he was treated somewhat differently while traveling with his wife, who wears a headscarf.
“I came back to the United States from that trip with something really different in my art practice,” he says. “When people said crazy statements about Muslims, immigrants, and refugees, they were now hitting home pretty dead on. Because I check the box on so many of these crazy statements.”
He began to feel that it was a duty to create art in order to amplify the voices of refugees and immigrants to help break down barriers.
The goal is to have 50 suitcases in total — one suitcase and one interview covering every state in the United States of Amaerica— by the end of President Trump’s term.
Hafez is currently in talks with various institutions to make this vision a reality so people can learn about refugees’ stories before they make rash judgments about them.