Worth a Look: Gabriela Bulisova’s “Option of Last Resort”

A little while ago Gabriela Bulisova sent us a link to her project “Option of Last Resort: Iraqi Refugees in the United States”. It is a challenging look at the issue of Iraqi refugees who are struggling to settle in the United States. Many of them assisted the Americans during the conflict, as translators or contractors, which put them in profound danger of reprisals.

The radio show This American Life had an episode earlier this year called “Will They Know Me Back Home?” (and one last year too, called Iraq After Us, which has a slightly more convoluted example) which touched on the issue of Iraqi colleagues who are attempting to immigrate to the US, surprising me that such an important and looming story – how do we treat the people who helped us – had eluded my attention for so long. Bulisova’s project brings us that much further into understanding the stories of Iraqis who are making the difficult transition from war to a new life in the United States, which had created such a troubled relationship in the first place. Her strong pictures are supplemented by startling quotes about life in Iraq and their treatment as refugees and their hopes for the future. I fear that issues like this, which are much quieter and are the more subtle repercussions of war, remain out of sight for many of us.

OPTION OF LAST RESORT: Iraqi Refugees in the United States. from gabriela bulisova on Vimeo.

from Bulisova’s introduction to the project:
Some of the most recent Iraqi refugees in America had signed up to serve as translators working for the U.S. military or as experts with other U.S. government agencies, NGOs, or American companies in Iraq. They saved lives; they built cultural and linguistic bridges; they sacrificed their own safety and the safety of their families to help participate in what they thought would be the creation of a better Iraq. They quickly became one of the most hunted groups in the country. They bore a lethal stigma as “collaborators” or “traitors” that transcended sect or tribe, and they were targeted in assassination campaigns that drove many of them either into hiding or out of the country.

For people who fear for their life and seek refugee status in America, the U.S. government offers resettlement as the “option of last resort” for the most vulnerable refugees. In this project, I photographed and interviewed Iraqi refugees who have been resettled to the United States and are living in Washington, D.C. or other American cities.

Dvafoto: How did you come to work on this project?
I worked with Iraqi refugees in Syria in 2007 and 2008 (the project can be seen on my website), and upon returning back to DC and while doing advocacy work with the photographs (the great displacement of Iraqis was an under reported story then and I tried to raise awareness), I learned about Iraqis in the US, specifically in the DC-area, who were affiliated with the US Army, government agencies, etc. and faced certain death if they did not flee. I connected with The List Project (an advocacy NGO that helps via legal means to speed up the extremely lengthy and difficult immigration process – even though those Iraqis are being targeted with assassination attempts and thus should be the number one priority for political asylum). And, then, slowly, very slowly, I was able to build trust and convince my subjects that I can photograph them without ever revealing their faces and their identities (few of them did not mind showing their faces – their entire families were either here or killed so they had nothing else to fear).

Where have you been able to show these pictures, and where else do you plan to?
It’s currently a part of the OSI’s Moving Walls 18 exhibit, parts of the project have been exhibited at different galleries (physical and on-line, including Burn magazine). I would love to continue working on the project – especially, I think, it’s timely right now to go to Iraq as the US is withdrawing its troops and there is no protection for the thousands of people who are-and-were affiliated with the US. The fear is that they will become the number one target again. That said, I would love to keep showing this work and, potentially, would also love to continue working on it.

2 Responses to “Worth a Look: Gabriela Bulisova’s “Option of Last Resort””

  1. Mary

    Excellent work.

  2. Peter

    I am a huge fan of Bulisova’s work (see 2010 archive on pivot art gallery). Thank you for spreading this important story and these incredible photographs.

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