When presidential candidates call Syrian refugees a threat to national security, Annika Best cringes. The Nashvillian spent five weeks on the ground with Syrians living in settlement camps in Lebanon, and now, she’s using photography to show Americans the faces of those stuck in the middle of crisis.
Best, who was raised in Wisconsin and Atlanta, is warm and polite. She’s white and in her 20s
with blonde hair and a tattoo of a red air balloon on her forearm. Up until last year, Best had never been to the Middle East or in a refugee camp. But December 2014 found her living in the Beqaa
, about ten miles west of the Syrian border.
One day, she was playing soccer with 8-year olds, when a young mother named Hemida
walked up to her and took her hand. She led Best into a tent and poured her a cup of tea. Since no translator was around, Hemida
took out her smartphone and began to scroll through photos.
“I realized she was showing me pictures of her former home in Syria,” Best says. “It was a lot greener than I would picture. Her home was beautiful. It was the first time I got the sense of the enormous loss that was all around me.”
The Beqaa Valley Is The Size Of Rhode Island
Some 370,000 refuges have crammed into tent cities in the Beqaa Valley, according to the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
. Three full-time staff members are responsible for all these people, and volunteers — like Best, who came with a faith-based group called Marriage of the Arts — help hand out U.N. rations and donated clothes. Best’s group included visual artists, and she taught art in a dirt-floor school that was built by aid workers.
She’d start her day there, painting murals with children, drawing, and crafting. In the afternoon, she’d go to a different camp and do tent visits with a translator. This is when she got to know the women. They’d sit and drink tea, and she’d learn about their lives. They’d ask her questions: What’s it like to wear pants? Why aren’t you married yet? When did you stop going to school?
Best was discouraged from speaking to men, and as she learned the stories of the women, she struggled to reconcile Islamic traditions with her values. Best calls herself a “hardcore feminist,” and it was a challenge to be culturally senstive
as she learned that Syrian girls get married at 13 or 15 and stop going to school. “You don’t want to offend that culture or try to change it by bringing your Westernism
,” she says, “and you want to be open-minded. But at the same time, it’s hard not to be like, ‘You can wear pants, too!'”
She Brought Her Camera Everywhere
Her photos show barefoot children crowded into doorways; clotheslines
strung up between tents, the many-colored garments hanging above puddles; families posing together with mountains in the distance. Her landscape shots make the valley look like a muddy wasteland, but in many photos, children are laughing, making faces, and posing with their arms around each other. Best says her camera was often the starting point for friendships she made with adults, too.
Best described the impressions people had when she met them. “There’s this, ‘What are you doing here? We know this is dangerous for you. We know that everyone thinks we’re terrorists. Why are you carrying this camera around? Can you take a picture of me? More importantly, can you go print it and give it to me because I haven’t had a picture of my family since we left.'”
After five weeks, Best moved on to her next assignment in Beirut, then Egypt, then home to Nashville in April. But the relationships she made the in Beqaa
Valley stuck with her. She sat on her photos for seven months, unsure what to do with them.
Following the Paris attacks, when governors around the country said they wouldn’t accept Syrian refugees into their states, Best opened up her laptop to revisit her photos. She didn’t want to seem like she was cashing in on what was happening, but as she heard politicians compare Syrian refugees to terrorists, she decided to contact a gallery.
She e-mailed Katie Shaw, co-owner of the Red Arrow Gallery in East Nashville. Red Arrow had just moved to a new space on Gallatin Road, and the paint wasn’t even on the walls. They planned to open in January. But Shaw and her partner Sarah Beth Paul saw this as an issue that needed immediate attention. They agreed to open a month early for a four-day exhibition of Best’s photography.
The gallery didn’t even have lighting installed yet, so they pulled in some floor lights.
Clear About Her Intentions
Best knows that her photos don’t represent every refugee in every camp, but she wanted to convey the stories of the people she met.
“You have loss that I can’t understand,” she says of the refugees, “but I see you and I want to know about you and I want to take this back to where I live and tell people, ‘These people have faces. They have homes. They have lives. They have dreams and hopes and they lost everything.'”
She points out a portrait of a couple, crouching in the dirt in front of a bright red tent. Hemida
, the young mother who initially showed Best photos of her home, is dressed in an aqua and violet hijab
and long-sleeved dress. Her husband drapes one arm around her shoulders. She’s smiling.
“When we had a translator, she told me how she escaped bombings by putting her kids under her dress. That’s something I’ll never forget. She’s miscarried three times since being in the camps. I can’t forget that.”
Hemida was 24-years-old when they met, already with five children. Best calls her a friend but has no way to reach her, to ask where she’s living or how her kids are doing. No way to offer support.
“I want to say, ‘Hang in there. I believe that good is going to prevail.’ I believe that people are going to take care of them. And I want that,” Best says.
What persists in her portraits is a sense of dignity. Annika
Best’s photographs are not about suffering. They are about living, each day, in a stalled state, with a future unknown.
Best just got word that Casa
will be showing her photographs in February.