TRAVEL :: Learning Joy from Refugees

T H I S  I S  J O Y!


One of the most fulfilling events on my sabbatical so far came in the most unexpected place for me. You see, there were many factors that made me choose the group I traveled with when I had that run-away-to-the-circus moment over the holidays of 2016. I liked that this group was filled with professionals of varying ages and careers, all working while traveling. I liked that there would be adult accommodations and a quality work space to get stuff done. I LOVED that they included a giving back component so that we could do something meaningful in each of our destinations. That was really something that set their operation apart from the others and it spoke to me. I was so honored that I had the opportunity to create documentary photography of refugees during our visit to their transition homes in the countryside outside Prague. It was one of the most fulfilling days I’ve experienced in a long time. And it was because of the people. 

Pavla is a sweet woman who regularly works with refugee families in the Czech Republic. She has a heart of gold and is so resourceful! She was our guide who helped organize our efforts to maximize our day with the families. We broke off into groups to spend time with the families and help beautify their outdoor space. Our roamer troopers worked hard to build a sandbox, weed, trim back overgrowth, and repaint swing sets. Busy busy bees!

Meanwhile, several of us headed inside for arts and crafts time. Some very talented people in that room! It was great to sit around and chat about life while working on art together. Art brings people together!

As we were sitting in the living room of this amazing family, Hannan was such an incredible host. She invited us all in to sit in their most comfortable seats while serving us drinks and refreshments. We felt so welcome! After our attentive hostess disappeared for awhile, I snuck into the kitchen and found her hard at work preparing loads of Syrian pizzas for all of us. They were DELICIOUS!!!

We got to sit around and visit with the ladies and have some girl talk, which was seriously wonderful. We had such a great time as everyone opened up and got to know each other.

There is something transcendent about photography. I asked if I could take some portraits of these beautiful ladies and I am so happy they obliged. There is something very special that happens when I have the opportunity to connect with another person on the other side of the lens. A wall comes down and people open up. I have the opportunity to show them how beautiful their light is to the rest of the world. And even more important than that…I feel that having your portrait taken can transport you out of your every day world. It can make you feel beautiful. It allows you to be seen. It can give you the freedom to express yourself. I hope that these women felt all of that, because I could see it from where I was standing and it made my day! It was great to celebrate these lovely people and the laughs—oh, the laughs are ALWAYS my favorite!!

I not only had the treasured opportunity to have some great conversations with the families we visited, but I was fortunate enough to create family portraits of people finding joy in life, despite the most trying experiences. I was overwhelmingly inspired by some of the most resilient people I think I’ve ever met. These are real people who have experienced some of the most horrific challenges life can dish out and they continue to live life and choose joy. There is so much love and joy in the resulting images and they make my heart sing <3.

There were so many smiles and laughs that afternoon. Of course, there were also many moments that left us speechless as we heard stories of of what everyone had been through to get here.

Jullie is getting ready to off to college (which will be taken care of in Czechia). She taught herself English by watching movies and listening to music. She’s also learned Czech. She is a talented painter and artist. She told us stories of how she’s lost most of her friends at home. Not something you expect to hear from a 17 year old. And especially when she has to speak of it so matter-of-factly.

Another set of brothers came across the sea in a boat with their mother and lived to tell about it. And their laughs are contagious.

I met a sweet, soft-spoken woman who was separated from her husband and two kids. She is waiting for their processing so that they can finally be together after two years.

I want you to imagine what any of those scenarios would be like. They’re real. Talking to people who have had such different life experiences really opens your eyes to what is possible in this world. I want to remind myself of these stories and these new friends on any day I’m feeling sorry for myself for anything in life. There’s no excuse. I can accept life and what it dishes out while choosing to move forward and choose joy.

My life is richer for having met them all and having them open their hearts and homes to us. And for these life lessons and the new friendships, I am thankful!