Voices that escape
New San Francisco art gallery gives a voice to refugees
April 19, 2023
On a bustling street known for vibrant graffiti and unique shops, the Refugee Eye gallery sits quietly between a baptist church and a crowded neighborhood park. The sleek black storefront catches onlookers’ eyes, some even stopping to peer inside, some even taking pictures of old newspaper clippings and flamboyant art festival posters.
The exhibits focus on highlighting numerous global conflicts,the campaign titled; “More Powerful Than Bullets” catches the eye, regarding the Russia-Ukraine war, featuring over 10 artists. The co-founders, both refugees themselves, vowed to create a safe space for fellow refugees to express their passion.
Since opening the first exhibit, “My Gaza: A City in Photographs,” by co-founder Jehad Al-Saftawi in March 2022, Refugee Eye has gained attention nationwide. Their promise is to deliver a new exhibit every six weeks.
“Many people connect with the exhibit because it shows an inside perspective of truly what it feels to leave home,” Lara Aburamadan, co-founder, said.
Aburamadan has been making waves internationally. She was chosen by Time Magazine among 34 spotlighted photojournalists around the world. Aburadamn and Al-Saftawi have created a safe environment where refugees can display their artistics abilities.
“All we knew is that we wanted to create something related to visual art that would make sure that refugees didn’t feel alone,” Aburamadan said.
Both friends didn’t know where to start helping, but in 2018, Aburamadan started using the hashtag #RefugeeEye on Instagram. This hashtag was shared across friends and families and from there, an idea, resulting in the current creation of the art gallery, flourished.
“It really resonated with us because we wanted to find a way to talk about our homeland and our own experiences,” Al-Saftawi said.
This story isn’t only me though, it’s the story of all kids that grew up in places [where] they couldn’t stay,
— Jehad Al-Saftawi
However, the existence of the gallery wasn’t easily established. Al-Saftawi said that it took a lot of planning and hard work since both of them had no prior experience or connections but, in the end, it was worth it.
“[It] really resonated with us because it was hard the first years, but this way, we could talk about our homeland,” Al-Saftawi said.
According to Al-Saftawi, growing up in an intense environment like Gaza pressured him to leave at an early age.
“This story isn’t only me though, it’s the story of all kids that grew up in places [where] they couldn’t stay,” Al-Saftawi said.
Al-Saftawi said he was fortunate enough to work with journalists and gain language skills. This helped him be better prepared to leave and start a new life.
“We try to seek better opportunities and leave war ravaged places like their home country,” Al-Saftawi said.
The future of Refugee Art is still uncertain as many of the artists themselves don’t have citizenship papers. The artists are refugees seeking asylum; thus they have the ultimate goal of returning back home, which causes instability.
“It’s difficult,” Aburamadan said, “Can’t expect them to stay. Even for me, I’m still applying for my papers.”
Being one of the few Bay Area galleries showcasing refugee’s art, the commitment doesn’t go unnoticed by Palo Alto High School students. Sophomore Vit Do admires the nonprofit organization’s spirited passion for featuring voices that have been silenced.
“I think their art is inspiring and creative by showing the refugees’ perspective through art which is not commonly seen,” Do said.
The “More Powerful Than Bullets” art exhibit was prominent in depicting the radical change the artists experienced since Russia invaded their nation, according to their website.
Tetiana Yakunova, a Ukrainian artist featured in this exhibit, said the real power was being able to share the art with other refugees. Especially in such a scary time in her country, feeling understood is vital to many people seeking asylum.
“[It] helps the victims of wars and people who have experienced it understand how important it is to be heard,” Yakunova said.
After working with art galleries around the globe this past year, Yakunova realizes the significance of her art . Over time the passion emitted from Yakunova’s works have begun to take shape.
“I’ve never, ever felt the power of my own art, until now,” Yakunova said.
Refugee Eye has created an environment dedicated towards connecting the art to the viewers according to Aburdamn. More people can relate to the art because it not only gives an inside perspective of refugees but what it feels to leave home in general. “I think what we are doing here is impactful, and purposeful.
“Our ultimate goal is to simply help people not feel alone,” Aburamadan said.