( 2018 – ongoing )
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
– Emma Lazarus, Statue of Liberty.
The City of New York is a melting pot where culture, language and diaspora come together to create a towering monument to diversity. Each of its five boroughs has its unique characteristics and neighborhood culture, lent to them by their inhabitants. But how much does the city know its dwellers? With life as fast-paced as is shown in pop-culture depictions of the city, is there time to pause and learn why these people migrated, building NYC a multicultural paradise?
The project “Letters from the neighborhoods” tells very personal stories of those immigrants who migrated to NYC after facing extreme human rights violations back in their homelands. Each portrait in this series comes with an open letter written by them in their native language —a personal anecdote, the story of their journey or advice to others.
Moreover, while making an inclusion through photography, the process allows them to cherish the freedom of expression.
Tony Lakouetene is a survivor of the Central African Republic Civil War. He used to be a teacher at a University and always loved to take photographs. The long-going civil war impacted his life and career badly. He and his family witnessed the horrors of the war from a very close distance. He saw people being slaughtered and shot like animals. In his village, at least 27 people were killed. Tony struggled there for a long time with his family just to survive. At the pick of the violence, when all the media and human rights organizations left, he started documenting everything and spreading those photographs through the internet. He got connected to international media outlets, and his work was published. One day, the rebels came to his house but could not find him since he was hiding. Then they beat his wife and two kids. After a few days, they went to the university and captured him. The rebels tortured him awfully. To save his life and his family, he migrated to the USA. Tony still likes to do photography and wants to continue that.
Wa’ad is a writer and artist from Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Back in her homeland, she used to remain very depressed because she could not express herself in the way she wanted. She had to stay covered all the time; she was not allowed to go anywhere alone; she had to live a life according to men’s wishes. She couldn’t just be herself. She decided to come to NYC to live a life full of freedom.
Alejandro & Vanessa, political activists from Mérida, Venezuela, did several protests against the dictatorship in their home country. One day they were in a rally, and police started firing. Vanessa luckily survived since she was in the second row, but her close friend got shot in front of her and lost a lot of blood. The government closed the hospitals and ordered the police to open fire on the protesters and those helping the wounded. Since Vanessa is a doctor, she converted their building lobby into a temporary medical support center and started treating her friend along with many other wounded activists and protesters. She found that her wounded friend got shot with a screw instead of a bullet and lost her kidney. At a point, the authority bombed the neighborhood and destroyed their building. They had no other option but to seek political asylum.
Iryna is from Ukraine. She faced a lot of trouble back in her country because of being homosexual. She got beaten by the homophobic people and even got fired from her job. In her own words, “Ukraine is a homophobic country. They don’t support us. They think that we are sick!” When her mom passed away, she decided to move from Ukraine. After settling down in New York, she felt better. But still, sometimes, she feels uncomfortable with her look. According to her experience, people from the Soviet Union judge her by her look. But then again, she feels safe in NY. She is happy because New York offers many opportunities to discover new life and herself.
Haoua is from Burkina Faso, West Africa. When she was nine, she became a victim of clitoris excision by her aunt and got forcefully married to an old guy at the age of fifteen. Her family thought this was good for her character since, after the excision, she would not be able to go to different men and remain loyal. After having three daughters and miserable family life, Haoua decided to leave her marriage and migrate to the USA for a life of dignity. She had to fight a lot with her father for freedom. After her husband’s death, she finally got asylum in the USA with one of her daughters. The life of a single mother in NYC is not easy. Also, she can not be with any other man as she won’t be able to satisfy him. Haoua always feels incomplete – something is missing from her body. She dreams of bringing her other children and giving them a better life.
Shmil Rotchild is from Jerusalem. Because of being an orthodox Jews, he faced a lot of suppression in his country. He got arrested and tortured countless times by the police for protesting against the authority. In most of the cases, there was no evidence. But during a protest in 2017, when police brutally attacked him and other protesters, it got recorded in photographs and published. He was lucky to be able to migrate to the USA as his wife is a Jewish American.
Hongyu Zhang is a Falun Gong practitioner from China, and so was her whole family. Because of their belief, they got arrested and tortured at the detention center several times. Her mother was persecuted to death, and her father was now in the detention center. Zhang decided to migrate to the USA for a better future.
Rim is from Mecca, Saudi Arabia. She first came to NY in 2013. She finds life in NYC hard, but she has more freedom here as a woman. Because in Saudi Arabia, women don’t have their rights. She had to wear a hijab or abaya back in Mecca, which she didn’t like. When she was in Saudi, women were not even allowed to drive a car. She believes a country cannot force anyone to follow any religion or a particular way of life. She found that the regime was controlling people in the name of religion.She found everything in NYC very different. When she first moved to the city, she cried every day because she had never lived without her family. She even wanted to go back. But at a point, she started to rely on herself. Still, she misses the family gathering and friends. She also misses the food. Back there, people were also helpful. If she needed help, she could find someone beside her. But here, it is hard to find those people in times of trouble. She discovered that nobody cared in NYC.
Adrian used to work for the government in the communication ministry of Venezuela, where he was an editor. He was forced to make propaganda videos. Though he didn’t like the work, he needed the money to go to another country. He tried not to follow the rules he thought were wrong, which put him into trouble. The government tracked his social media activities and seized his computer. He had to move to the USA when he started receiving threatening phone calls. In NYC, he started working as a food delivery guy to survive. He feels sad and lonely in the city. One day he would love to be back in his loving country.
Essam is a survivor of the war in Yemen. During the war, he saw many people dying, suffering, and fleeing the place. In the midst of war, it was getting difficult for him to take care of his large family since he was the only earning member. One day his neighbor’s building got bombed. On another day, while working in his barber shop beside the street, he saw many wounded people being taken to the hospital; many lost one leg or one hand. One day there was a bombing just beside his shop. He got lucky to be alive. Then one of his Yemeni American friends suggested applying for the DB lottery. He tried his luck and won the lottery.