PHOTOGRAPHY AND TEXT BY BERT STEPHANI
This boy used to live a completely normal, safe life in a nice house in Iraqi Kurdistan. Now, he lives in a tent in the bushes near Dunkirk, France. Every night, he hopes the French police doesn't come to slash their tent to pieces or empty a can of mace in it.
His father used to be a chef at a restaurant, now he depend completely on the goodwill of others to feed his family. The boy is not sure why they left their friends and family to live in a tent in a cold country where he can't go to school. The father on the other hand was given other options than to live an illegal life in Europe. He could have paid a lot of money to be left alone, not knowing when they would come again for more money that he didn't have. Or he could have chosen to have his family killed by someone who felt they had the wrong ethnicity or religion.
This boy, his two younger brothers (the youngest is just 10 months old) and his parents were forced to go on a dangerous three month journey to Europe. They paid 25.000 dollars to human traffickers for this perilous journey. They can see the UK across the North Sea from where they are living now. But it will take another 25.000 dollars to MAYBE get to some of their friends and family who live there. In case you are wondering if the Brexit has already had an impact on the economy: yes it has, the traffickers have raised their rates considerably since the referendum.
Yet, this boy was happy to show us how the refugees try to keep the area clean, how they help each other out, how happy he was with the bag of old clothes we brought. And while he played football with my own son, I sat down with his dad. He shared his family's story and his hope that this boy and his brothers will one day live a normal life again. When I ask him about the future, he can only shrug— but he still believes humanity will one day prevail for his family and all the other refugees.
I visited Dunkirk together with my girlfriend Griet. We were deeply impressed by how much it ment to these people to have their existence acknowledged by a portrait and have their stories heard. On the way home, we decided to take it a step further and start a project around documenting refugee stories. We are still figuring out everything from logistics to our approach, but I'll keep you posted about our project.
Here are some more of the portraits that I made that day in Dunkirk: