Sanctuary and Sustenance: Photographing the journey towards a better life

The United States-Mexico border at San Ysidro, in the county of San Diego, is the busiest land border crossing in the western hemisphere. Every day, these people, who come in search of protection and a better life arrive in San Diego; one of the many cities that have seen an increase in refugees and asylum seekers.

The inspiring and shocking stories of some of these people have been captured by photographer Misael Virgen and were until recently on display at the La Mesa Library in San Diego.

The photo series focus on the journey from the points of entry to San Diego, beginning with the border and the airport. A collaboration between the organisation ART WORKS Projects and International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) member Survivors of Torture, International (SURVIVORS), the photographs are San Diego’s version of the international project Sanctuary and Sustenance, which tells the stories of some of the more than 60 million people currently without a permanent home because of war or persecution.

“The images help us share several of the thousands of stories of newcomers to our community,” explains Niki Kalmus, Community Relations Manager of SURVIVORS.

SAN DIEGO, CA-NOVEMBER 09, 2015: | A Sudanese refugee is greeted by her family where they reunited at Lindbergh Airport in San Diego for the first time in years. At 23, she arrived with her two young boys. | (Misael Virgen/ San Diego Union-Tribune)

A Sudanese refugee reunited with her family at San Diego’s airport. Courtesy of Misael Virgen/ San Diego Union-Tribune

“We want San Diego to understand the long, arduous journeys our clients, refugees, asylum seekers, and all migrants make to rebuild their lives in our city. We also want to show that the lives these migrants lead are very similar to our own. The images Misael captured demonstrate how torture survivors’ lives are hardly different from the lives of you and me.”

SURVIVORS and ART WORKS Projects hope to raise awareness of the challenges faced by refugees and asylum seekers, as well as of their resilience, to spark conversations about collective responsibility, welcome newcomers to communities, and encourage policy-makers to act in favour of fundamental human rights for refugees and asylum seekers.

“So far we have been able to reach many people who had never heard of SURVIVORS. The clients featured in Misael’s photography were excited to raise awareness about torture survivors, and came to see the exhibits when they were unveiled. One of the clients is highly involved with advocating for the rights of transgendered individuals, the reason she was tortured and forced to flee her home country,” explains Niki.

According to her, the exhibition, which was shown at La Mesa Library throughout the month of June, has inspired lots of visitors to get involved.

“Many of them now volunteer at SURVIVORS or have sought more information from us about how they can help torture survivors. Lots of people commented that they had no idea this was still an issue today, and especially not that it reached our community.”

Exhibition at Carmel Valley Library

The Sanctuary & Sustenance Exhibition in San Diego. Courtesy of SURVIVORS.

Sanctuary & Sustenance is a multimedia projection of photography, film, music, and words, launched on June 20, 2013 in honour of World Refugee Day in cities around the world.

Through photographs, moving graphics, and music, viewers have an opportunity to trace the journey of a family during the catastrophic events of displacement, on a path to sanctuary, and through the long process of rebuilding life in a new community. Across the world, it aims to raise the public consciousness of these issues and facilitate conversations about the collective responsibility to welcome refugees and encourage policy-makers to act in favour of fundamental human rights for refugees and asylum seekers.

Niki says that in San Diego, SURVIVORS does its best to educate the public about torture and its consequences.

“We raise awareness through community outreach such as this exhibit to let our community know that torture survivors are an underserved and often invisible part of the population. The most important thing we can do is simply understand that they are among us and spread the word about the important work of SURVIVORS and torture treatment centres throughout the world. We believe that by raising awareness about the existence of torture survivors in our very neighbourhoods we can create a more welcoming community.”

SURVIVORS is currently seeking other locations to show the exhibition. You can find out more about the Sanctuary & Sustenance project by clicking here, see more of the work from the exhibition by going to Misael Virgen’s website or get the latest news from SURVIVORS by following them on Facebook.

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