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If there is one thing that I learned

If there is one thing that I learned in the past month in Europe, and to put it in one (or two) sentence is: “If everyone has the right to pursue happiness, than we can understand the right of refugees”…and until you will see the plight of the refugees with your own eyes, you will not understand the full extent of their desperation for happiness… DSC_0814

A story of a volunteer

When I joined the team that went to the refugees camp in Dobova (Slovenia), I was picked up and driven by a young volunteer Josipa Knez.
We had coffee together in Zagreb, and she told me part of her story. Josipa is a 25 years old gentle woman. She was born in Zadar, some 300km from Zagreb. Her father was killed in the Yugoslav War in 1993. As a result, she and her family became refugees for about two of months in Germany and then in Rijeka in Croatia…
Josipa has an inclination for the Marxism ideas, mainly to do with the notion of “no borders & no nations”. She studying Political science. She is her own humanitarian opinions based on what she develops while putting herself in other “marginal” groups (gay, refugees and so on) shoes. Josipa see herself continuing as an activist mainly to do with climate change and environmental issues. She is a member and activist at “Zelena Akcija” (Green Action), and “Young friends of the earth, Europe”…Today we met again in Paris when I took this picture of hers…

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The story of “Are You Syrious” a refugees aid organisation

In my quest to photograph the story of the refugees in Europe, I came across an organisation called “Are you Syrious?” in Zagreb (Croatia). I joined them in the field assisting refugees and became fascinated with the organisations’ story. It all started in their lunchroom at the end of August 2015. Luka and Lejla Juranic (Husband & wife and the co-founders of “Are You Syrious?”) saw what we all saw on TV. They decided to collect food and other things that refugees might need and stored in their garage at home. They approached their friends and drove to RÖSZKE on the Hungarian border. That was the first time that they saw the 1000’s of refugees had no support beside one tent used by “Doctors without borders”. Upon their return, they organised a concert (Luka is a musician). They called the concert “Are You Syrios”, (The name was suggested by a friend musician and a poet). The name became the organizations’ name.  Since then the organisation has grown and now has four storage points which are full at most times. Firstly they decided to send aid to Serbia, but they were returned as they didn’t have the right paperwork. At the same time problems with influx of refugees started in Croatia due to the closure of the Hungarian border. In the meantime the organisation grew and recruited many volunteers who all wanted to go and work in the “field”. For a start they went to TOVARNIK (entry point to Croatia for the refugees) with enough food for 4000 people. Although the police set a blockade, the refugees crashed the blockade, and surrounded the organization’s truck. It took days for the government to set an official camp at OPATOVAC and to get there the refugees went via border crossing BAPSKA. The refugees had to walk 17km from the place in Serbia where they were “dropped” to the Opatovac camp. At Bapska no one was there to help, not even the Red Cross, there were no tents or other necessities. So “Are you Syrious” established a station with supplies for the marching refugees. At the height of the crises there were 7000 refugees crossing the border. Only weeks later the Government provided transport for the refugees and volunteer help was not needed in Bapska any more. But soon a new hot spot opened, as refugeese started to travel through Slovenia after Hungary completely closed its borders. An unofficial border crossing between Croatian and Slovenia was used at KLJUČ BROOVEČKI – RIGONCE. 7000 refugees a day passed through this crossing, without any help provided for them in Slovenia and thousands of children were sleeping in the open field, surrounded by army and police. Even they did not allow volunteers to provide help to the desperate refugees who were freezing and hungry “Are you Syrious” managed to provide clothing and food to these people. I can carry on telling the fantastic work of this organisation, but I am sure that you got the picture by now. Within the 3 months of operation of “Are you Syrious” has grown to have a base group of volunteers of about 40 people (mainly young), and about 250 other volunteers that coming and going. They have 4 warehouses stocked with aid. The volunteers are mostly young women (and some men) highly motivated with a strong humanitarian inclination. They do the work without fuss, going for all night to help refugees in their transfer camps, organising flee markets and other fund raising activities. I hope that these young people will show the way, and some will become future leaders. They organised “responsibility groups”:

  • Co-ordination – about 40 co-ordinators co-ordinate the teams that go to the field as well as the warehouses  and other activities
  • Intelligence – to find out what is happening in each region and also other countries
  • Communication – to work the Facebook page and to answer all questions asked
  • Donations management
  • Stores –they call them the warehouses fairies
  • Transportation – to drive the teams to the camps, and deliver aid there

As Ian Grgiƈ (Luka & Lejla’s son) says: It is not only about going down to the field (as rewarding as it is), behind each humanitarian organisation there is need for a large logistic and back room support. And still. “Are You Syrious” organisation doesn’t have address or accountancy practices, but within 3 weeks, it will become recognised as an “official” aid organisation in its own right…

Every organisation has coordination and decision making meeting regularly

Every organisation has coordination and decision making meeting regularly

Lejla, the co founder of "Are you Syrious"

Lejla, the co founder of “Are you Syrious”

Luka, the co founders of "Are you Syrious"

Luka, the co founders of “Are you Syrious”

Ines Grgurevic - one of the volunteers responsible for donations, also  seeing how to raise sensibility in our society for refugees as well as volunteering in the field

Ines Grgurevic – one of the volunteers responsible for donations, also seeing how to raise sensibility in our society for refugees as well as volunteering in the field

Donations are coming...

Donations are coming…

MEDIKA, is a vibrant place with many purposes … It is used by squatters, It is a club, it is a theater and workshop, it is a place for music training, and flea market. It is also a collection center donations to “Are you Syrious” before distributing it to their four warehouses

MEDIKA, is a vibrant place with many purposes … It is used by squatters, It is a club, it is a theater and workshop, it is a place for music training, and flea market. It is also a collection center donations to “Are you Syrious” before distributing it to their four warehouses

Volunteers at work (organising  a flea market) for fund raising

Volunteers at work (organising a flea market) for fund raising

Volunteers at work (organising  a flea market) for fund raising

Volunteers at work (organising a flea market) for fund raising

The flea market is still in full swing...

The flea market is still in full swing…

The flea market is still in full swing...

The flea market is still in full swing…

The busses with the refugees arrive in Dobova (Serbia) camp

The busses with the refugees arrive in Dobova (Serbia) camp

The busses with refugees arriving at the camp (Dobova, Bosnia)

The busses with refugees arriving at the camp (Dobova, Bosnia)

What they tell me about refugees

They tell me that 80% of the refugees passing through Turkey, and then to Greece, and then to Macedonia, and then to Croatia, and then to Slovenia, and then to Austria, and then to Germany or any other destination are Immigrants and not refugees….so I am thinking to myself, if someone taking his little children through all these countries by sea, foot and busses through border control (with tough treatment), MUST BE EXTREMELY DESPERATE… DSC_0624

Europe’s Refugees

Tonight was one of the most significant nights for me for understanding humanity. As I am traveling through Europe trying to follow the Refugees story, I arrived in Zagreb (Croatia) yesterday. Last night I was invited by an organisation “Are you Syrious” to join them crossing the border to Slovenia to the refugees camp of Dobova. Three young girls picked me up at 10pm and we drove to the border (crossing the border is another story in its own right). At the camp we joined the Red Cross staff, and waited for the refugees busses to come…and they came, thousands of refugees being picked up at the train station in Croatia… old, young, men (a lot of young men), families and babies… all exit the busses in groups as been directed by the “fully armed” Police…carrying plastic bags with some belongings… As the “fully armed” police prevented me from taking photographs (aggressively), I just joined the volunteers. My job was to help people with “full” hands that were carrying babies to go through the Red cross food supply, and then to stand in the line (for about 45min) waiting to be processed…I was carrying babies young as 4 DAYS OLD…!…The faces of the refugees were weary and mostly blank…after extensive search, the refugees had to be processed and registered. All that taking about 3 hours per a group, and then back to the busses to the border with Austria, and there to go through this process again, and again “My” volunteers were young girls in mid-20’s going almost every night to give a hand to the refugees. We were working from 11:00pm to 7:00am…All in all, looking at these people and carrying their babies made me think about my life, my kids and my granddaughter in Australia, and how different lives are to different people just because they were born in different places…The world is not a fair place…

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Haiti – the land of the ‘Comedians’ or the ‘mountainous land’

DSCF5004As a photographer, my objective is not so much about achieving technical or artistic perfection, but more about capturing images of significance. I believe ‘significance’ can be found in a single image, or throughout a body of work. What makes photography significant in my eyes is a revelation of place, culture, humanity and ideas that most of us have never been exposed to.

This philosophy – and an unlikely turn of events – led me to the island of Haiti, the scene of my most recent photographic expedition. The journey started years earlier.

I was described as a problematic child. As a 14 year old growing up in Israel, it was suggested to my parents that boarding school might set me right. One of my classmates was a beautiful and quietly spoken girl named Sharona. She was way out of my league, and I rarely had spoken to her. Meanwhile, boarding school did nothing to change my attitude, and I was expelled two years later. That would be the last time I saw or heard from Sharona for five decades.

In 2010 a magnitude 7 earthquake struck Haiti, claiming over 160,000 lives. In the days that followed I was reading an Israeli newspaper article about Israeli citizens who survived the disaster. Sharona’s name appeared as one of the citizens found safe and well. Sharona’s father was a famous peace activist, which prompted public interest in her wellbeing. The newspaper reported she had married a Haitian man and was living there when the earthquake hit. Out of curiosity I looked her up on Facebook and made contact. To my surprise, Sharona remembered me and our school years in great detail, and I soon discovered that we now had much in common. When I shared my photography work Sharona encouraged me to visit Haiti, describing the people and scenery as ‘photographic heaven’.

Not long after, I found myself on a flight from my home in Melbourne to Haiti, with little idea of what to expect. I was about to enter the world’s oldest black ex “slave” republic and the second-oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere behind the United States (having achieved independence in 1804). Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, as I was about to see with my own eyes.

I arrived in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince looking forward to experiencing the last day of a local carnival. But instead of smiles and celebration, I discovered a very different mood. The previous day a carnival float was struck by an electric cable, causing up to 50 deaths – some through electrocution and many others through the panic that followed. The final day of the carnival turned into a mourning march. I had only a few hours in the streets to observe that life still went on amongst the sadness. Here in one of the poorest places on earth, I discovered more ‘life’ than I have found in some of the world’s richest cities.

Taking my camera out into the streets for the first time was a bit overwhelming. The streets were filled with food stalls and activity, contrasting with the many people sitting on the pavement, simply doing nothing or sleeping. The air was filled with loud noises that are difficult to describe, or pinpoint where they were coming from. The temperature was uncomfortably hot and humid.

I must admit to feeling on edge at first, as the travel books I had read gave the impression there was danger around every corner. I had a local named Franzie accompany me on my first outing with the camera, which helped me relax and stay in the moment.

The next day I was out on the streets again, trying to orientate myself and absorb the rhythm of the crowd. I found myself falling in love with the action, soaking up the sounds of street vendors trying to sell their goods to any and every one that passed them, whether by car, bus or on foot. The locals were not always willing to be photographed, and needed a bit of friendly persuasion or a few dollars. Haiti’s city streets are its heart, and it is beating fast.

At night the streets of Port-au-Prince were dark, punctuated by bright spots of light around the food stalls. The contrast of the light and the sound of music spilling out of the nightclubs, created a magical atmosphere in the streets.

At first I was looking for unusual subjects, but I quickly realised that everything that seemed unusual to me, was an everyday scene in Haiti. I was drawn to the subjects I found personally interesting, avoid clichés and trying not to fall into the trap of repeating myself.

Haiti is known for its widespread Voodoo following. 90% of Haitians are Catholic and 10% Protestants, but virtually all Haitians are also Voodoo practitioners. I found the Haitian Voodoo ceremonies to be mesmerising – both as a photographer and as part of my personal fascination with distinctive cultures.

The word Voodoo represents what practitioners believe are the mysterious powers that control the world. The role of a Voodoo priest is to serve the spirits. Voodoo is not a religion – rather it is a physical and spiritual experience. The Voodoo practitioners believe in a higher entity that cannot be communicated with, therefore their prayers are directed to ‘lower’ spirits.

The spirits are divided into 21 ‘nations’ and each is related to a different Catholic Saint. Each spirit nation is related to a ‘family’, and each family has a different description such as military, women, agriculture, fertility and death. There are 401 spirit families. For example, there is a spirit called Au’aga, the spirit of the thunder, hurricanes and other natural disasters. In Haiti, the spirit of Zagozi is the representative of this spirit.

According to Jean-Daniel (a friend and a Voodoo priest), when entering a door at the temple you must knock three times, to let the spirits know you are entering. The next step is to say “honour” and wait for a reply of “respect” before lighting a candle. Then one must pour water on the floor three times to represent the four basic elements: earth, air, fire and water.

According to Haitian beliefs, people need the spirits, and the spirits need people to survive. Voodoo is not a religion of God – it is a connection between us and God. There are a number of dates in the year when Voodoo ceremonies are always held. One special day is the Saturday after Easter, where followers open the temple, and wake up the spirits that did not work during the holiday. There are also Voodoo ceremonies for initiations, where the initiated rediscover some elements of their being. For example, one goes through an initiation when becoming a Voodoo priest, or when starting a career as a drummer, or to become a ruler. To become a priest, a number of initiations are required.

Voodoo is not a religion, but there is a religion in Voodoo. It is a way of life and a philosophy with strong elements of religion, including a strong belief in the existence of spirits. For instance, when drinking coffee, it’s a Voodoo practice to drop three drops on the floor, in memory of their fathers, the spirits and the earth. It is also customary to light a candle in memory of their fathers.

The Haitians claim that their Voodoo culture is the richest in the world. The Haitian Voodoo is a mix of many Voodoo practices of many African tribes, along with influences of Greek and European mythology. Some Jewish, Islamic, and Christian rituals include elements of Voodoo.

Jean Jacques Dessalines, the founder of independent Haiti, became the country’s first emperor in 1804. He tried to abolish Voodoo and drove the practises underground. After the passing of Jean Jacques Dessalines the Voodoo practises started flourishing again.

Voodoo doesn’t have a ‘Satan’ or even bad spirits, although there are violent spirits, just as there are violent people. The spirits are the reflection of humanity.

Art is on display around every corner of Haiti. Most of the paintings displayed in the streets are colourful, decorative and unsophisticated – but also an important representation of the Haitian art narrative. Haitian art appears naïve but is full of tradition, based on African roots with strong Indigenous American and European influences. It is an essential representation of Haitian culture and history. Much of the street art features visual descriptions of daily life in the city.

Haitian paintings are generally divided into two categories: naives and moderns. This division has been widely accepted in Haitian arts. Why the distinction? The naive painters are known as primitives, and it’s been said that their style lacks artistic education and discipline. The modern painters have come to view the term ‘naif’ as a negative connotation on the evolution of Haitian paintings. However, the term naive has more to do with independence from academic tradition, and it is a style that suggests artistic innocence.

 

 

 

What I learned about Voodoo

The spirit of Zagozi (given to me at a Voodoo ceremony)

The spirit of Zagozi (given to me at a Voodoo ceremony and now in Australia)

The Creole Voodoo of Haiti is a small part of a ritual. The word Voodoo represents mysterious powers that control the world. The priest is there to serve the spirits. Voodoo is not a religion; it is rather a physical and spiritual experience… The Voodoo practitioners believe in a higher entity that cannot be communicated with, therefore the prayers are directed to “lower” entities and those are the spirits…
The spirits are divided in to 21 “nations” and each is related to a different Catholic saint. Each spirit nation is related to a “family” and each “family” has a different description like military, women, agriculture, fertility, death etc. For example, there is a spirit called Au’aga. This spirt is of the thunder, Hurricanes, and other natural disasters. In Haiti the spirit of Zagozi is the representative of this spirit.
There are 401 spirits families.

According to Jean-Daniel (a friend and a Voodoo priest), when entering a door at the temple one needs to knock three times, and let the spirits know that you are entering. One must say “honor” and wait for a reply “respect”, and then light a candle. Then one needs to pour water on the floor three times and all that represent the four basics: earth, air, fire and water.

According to Haitian beliefs, we need the spirits, and the spirits need us to survive. Voodoo is not a religion of God; it is a connection between us and God. There are a number of dates where Voodoo ceremonies are always held. One is the Saturday after Easter, where you open the temple, and wake up the spirits that did not work during the holiday. Also there are Voodoo ceremonies for “initiations” where one is “finding” again some elements of his being. For example, one goes through an initiation when becoming a Voodoo priest, or when starting a career as a drummer, or to become a ruler. To become a priest, one needs to go through number of initiations.

It must be clear that Voodoo is not a religion, but there is a religion in Voodoo. Voodoo is a way of life, it is a philosophy with strong elements of religion, and a strong belief in the existence of spirits. For instance, when drinking coffee, we drop three drops on the floor, in memory of our fathers, the spirits and the earth. We also light a candle in memory of our fathers as well.

The Haitians clam that their Voodoo is the richest in the world. The Haitian Voodoo is a mix of many Voodoo practices of many African tribes with influences of Greek and European mythology. Furthermore, there are elements in Voodoo of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian rituals.

Jean Jacques Dessalines the founder of independent Haiti became its first emperor in 1804. He tried to abolish Voodoo following and drove the practises underground, After the passing of Jean Jacques Dessalines, the Voodoo practises started flourishing again.

The Voodoo doesn’t have a “Satan” or “bad” spirits, although there are violent spirts, exactly as like there are violent people. The spirts are the reflection of humanity.
(More of the story of Voodoo and Haiti to come)…

My trip is over…

My trip to Haiti is over, and I need to mention and thank the people that made it successful for me… Firstly Sharona Natan Elsaieh, a childhood friend from boarding school (I was there for two years) who after 50 years still remembered me, a woman with an incredible life story. Sharona has lived in Haiti for many years. She encouraged me to come to Haiti to take photographs, and I am happy that I listened to her. Her Husband Mano Elsaieh opened his arms so wide and so warmly and Jean-Daniel who introduced me to the voodoo temples and took me to the voodoo ceremonies…and last (but not least), Franzie who went with me wherever I went and didn’t let me take even one step on my own, he protected me and was my lifeline to the people of Port au Prince…

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