After a while, they say, one can get used to anything. The photos in Jehad al-Saftawi’s 2020 book “My Gaza: A City in Photographs,” illustrate this idea: Among stills of devastation, young boys play ball in a bombed auditorium, children sit amid rubble on the side of a road, fishermen set out to sea.
But al-Saftawi, 30, couldn’t get used to the way things were in Gaza, where he lived all his life. For years, he dreamed of leaving behind the oppression and tumult of his Israeli-occupied homeland. Until the opportunity presented itself, he took photos.
Select images from al-Saftawi’s book are now on display at Refugee Eye, a bright new gallery at 849 Valencia St. that launched on March 11 with his show. In future exhibits, he and his partner, Lara Aburamadan, plan to showcase works from refugees like themselves.
Tonight from 6 to 8 p.m., al-Saftawi will give a talk at the gallery, located at 849 Valencia St. between 19th and 20th streets.
Both Palestinian photojournalists, al-Saftawi and Aburamadan arrived in the United States together in 2016, after the 2014 war in Gaza made then-23-year-old Aburamadan realize she needed to escape her war-torn home.
“It was the point where we knew: That I need a safe place to live in, I need a future. I need freedom,” said Aburamadan, 30. It wasn’t only war: As photojournalists, she and al-Saftawi found themselves in increasingly dangerous situations, facing arrests and intimidation.
Al-Saftawi said his escape from Gaza was also from the extreme conservatism of his family, from the inability to be different or break the mold. “This is the modern refugee experience,” he said.
The idea for a visual arts gallery focused on the refugee experience came from Aburamadan’s own time adjusting to her new life and in turn adjusting her art. “I was struggling as a new person, as an artist and photographer here in the U.S.,” Aburamadan said.
“I grew up all my life in Gaza, and I lived in a war zone. So, like each corner in Gaza, in the city, it felt like a place for me to take photos of, and to tell a story,” said Aburamadan. “And then I came here. It’s a more peaceful place. It’s a whole different world.”
Having begun with loose ideas on her phone notepad, eventually Refugee Eye came to fruition as a nonprofit gallery, sharing space with music promoters NoisePop, and McSweeney’s Publishing, which published “My Gaza.”
“Basically the whole idea of Refugee Eye is showing the perspective of refugees, artists through visual storytelling,” Aburamadan said. “What is it to leave your home and to leave your country and start at the beginning in a new place?”
The pair applied for asylum and, with the help of author Dave Eggers of McSweeney’s, who they first met in Gaza, landed in the Bay Area in 2017. Some members of Aburamadan and al-Saftawi’s families ended up in different countries, while many others stayed behind. For now, the two rely on each other as family, and have settled in Berkeley.
For Refugee Eye’s next exhibit, the gallery will display work from a collective of Ukrainian artists currently observing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Eventually, Aburamadan plans to display her own paintings, a newer venture for the photographer and sometimes-writer. Aburamadan believes the shift will be empowering, allowing her a new way to break free of the structure and rigidity of her past.
She hopes Refugee Eye will not only come to be a familiar and warm space for other refugees, but also one for passersby and visitors to better understand others “in the time of building walls,” since there will always be refugees in one form or another.
In providing a public platform for expression, Refugee Eye can “give value” to the experiences of people around the world, al-Saftawi said. He hopes this contributes to public discourse and awareness, and possibly leads to policy change.
As I flip through al-Saftawi’s book of haunting photos, Aburamadan looks on. The people of Gaza are ”desperate for the world to see what is happening,” she says, to be “recognized as humans.”