Rightly pointing out that ‘the plight of refugees gets confused in the general debate about migration’, this showcase of refugee photo portraits makes a good antidote to the current political mood in certain quarters. We confess, we were initially uneasy about the title, The Refugee's Gift. We were wrong, and if you’ll let us show you why, you’ll understand why this exhibition is so powerful and vital.
To us, ‘gift’ had connotations of debt. It implied asylum is less of a regulated process enshrined in international law than a gentleman’s agreement made in a western embassy. It suggested an expectation of ‘payback’ escalating beyond the simple, human rights-led business of asylum, and into the shadier realms of treats, favours, and proverbial backroom picnic hampers.
But when presented with a diversity of Bill Knight’s characterful photos – of doctors, architects, teachers, writers, a mayor, a diabetes mentor, several knights of the realm, and a hat manufacturer – we came to understand the plurality of meanings ‘gift’ can actually have, beyond lavishness. A gift may entail, in numerous ways, society’s wholesale fortification or enrichment – or it may simply be about communicating very important stories.
There are pictures of philanthropists, whose gifts are quantifiable. Sir Erich Reich, who sits behind a photo of a family he never again saw after fleeing Nazi German-occupied Poland, has raised £85m for charitable causes. There are high-profile inclusions, like Bob Hepple, South Africa’s ‘banned person’ who advised Nelson Mandela during his 1962 trial.
And there are some whose gift is more discreet but no less inspirational: it is their spirit of unimaginable perseverance. Most of the exhibited persons arrived here with few possessions and even less English. Gary Chimuzinga conjured 21 GCSEs out of nothing but graft. 102 year-old Elspeth Juda arrived with nothing but her husband and a violin, and made a go of it as a fashion photographer. She clutches her little digital camera. Meanwhile, the successful lawyer Raju Bhatt kicks back behind his desk, tie askew and top button undone. Jade Amoli-Jackson, a former sports reporter, is portrayed punching the air in a moment of glee. They talk of refugee ‘naturalisation’ in their new country. Well, nobody could seem more natural than this bunch.
But it would be ignorant to suggest all these people are truly ‘free’. The artist and writer Hasan Absalla, for instance, had to leave behind his wife and son in Damascus after imprisonment there. The final impression is of the continuing need for solid support work. There are portraits of men and women who sustain the process of refuge – like the Refugee Council volunteer Amna Idris, who ‘has been through the system itself, and knows how it feels’.
Finally, some impart the gift of working for the world’s betterment through other means. The 92 year-old scientist Gustav Born, the son of Nobel Prize-winning Max, is working on what seems a highly appropriate thesis: ‘his question of why muscles appear to be immune from the spread of cancer’. There could hardly be a better metaphor for the supreme importance of refugee flight, free movement, and escape.
The Refugee’s Gift is on display until 20 June at St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, London, WC2N 4JJ. Admission is free