Yemeni photographer Thana Faroq focuses her lens on fellow refugee women for powerful snapshots that give them both voice and visibility.
The first time photographer Thana Faroq held a camera, she was terrified. But her mother stood firm. “We’re not going anywhere until you take that photo,” she told her then 14-year-old daughter. When Faroq finally clicked the shutter, she felt an enormous sense of relief and accomplishment. Seeing the self-portrait she had captured was liberating: “I exist! I am here!” At that moment, she understood the power of the camera to tell the stories that would otherwise be forgotten. Today, Yemeni Faroq is a photographer who sought refugee status in the Netherlands five years ago to flee her home country’s civil war. When she first went out on to the streets to photograph people in everyday life, it wasn’t about the subject matter at all – she says that simply being a woman behind the camera in conservative Yemeni society was an act of empowerment, with so few daring to do it. “People think that our emotional exile began when we moved to a new country and sought asylum, but it began long before that, when we were still in our homelands. When I went out with my camera in Yemen, people used to say to me, ‘So you don’t have a husband? You don’t have a family? You’re not a good girl?’ I used to hear all these curse words.” During her time in refugee camps in the Netherlands, Faroq befriended other women seeking asylum and felt compelled to tell their stories – as well as her own – from a new perspective. Her latest project, How Shall We Greet the Sun, focuses on the interior emotional landscapes of these women. A series of photographs explores how their identity is constructed and deconstructed by the countries they left behind, the one they now find themselves in, and the limbo of everything in between. “I spent the last year documenting the aftermath of finding new soil to step safely upon. The struggle of inserting oneself into society with all its rules and contradictions, ones that may or may not connect to what you used to regard as safe and familiar. I aimed to create a memory archive of our emotions, which are often lost in histories of migration and displacement.” Faroq’s work, although rooted in the trauma of the refugee experience, is informed by her mother’s strength, who encouraged her to express herself at a young age on her own terms, and to stand in the power of her own story. “All the portraits I’m doing of the women now, it’s really inspired by the woman’s powerful gaze,” she says. “I want to offer my own version of the story, one that is infused with my resilient spirit, unbroken, unfailing, and devoid of self-pity. I wanted to climb the fences, and I did.”
Carol Al Tarboush
Medical engineering student from Syria
A life of scarcity and war back home in Syria was the most diffi cult part of Carol Al Tarboush’s journey. “I suff ered a lot of poverty and deprivati on, and I was unable to fi nish my undergraduate studies in medical engineering. My only goal was to tr avel so that I could help my family, and provide for them a life away fr om need and displacement. A life full of love and tr anquility without wars and loss,” she says. “I have experienced a lot of bullying in my life where I used to live, fr om people who didn’t believe in me and laughed at my dreams, and this gave me more moti vati on to become who I am today. Th ese pictures are an expression of the suff ering of the refugee woman in the countr y of exile, far fr om her family and homeland, and an embodiment of their str ength in overcoming diffi culti es, proving themselves in a society to which they do not belong, and achieving their ambiti ons despite all circumstances.” Al Tarboush’s message to fellow women is, “You are worthy of love, a good life, a good relati onship, and anything else you desire. You are enough exactly as you are in this day and ti me.”
Student from Iran
Kimiya Adelifar moved to the Netherlands six years ago. “I left Iran because it has become very diffi cult for women to live our lives, become who we want to be, and pursue our passions, which for me is creati ng art and being who I am. Being separated fr om my parents, younger sister, and dog – and fearing that I would forget the specifi cs of their faces – as well as tr ying to fi nd my place physically and socially have been the hardest challenges for me,” she says. “Th e realizati on that I am on the route to becoming what I have always wanted to be and to make my family, who have been my biggest supporters in life, and myself proud, warms my heart in tough ti mes. My goal in the Netherlands is to use my art to serve both the people and myself. My advice to the world is to follow your ambiti ons and do whatever makes you happy, no matt er how old you are or what other people may think, because life is too short to not live your best life.” Adelifar enjoyed being photographed for this project, with her parti cular highlights “seeing Th ana, a good fr iend of mine, taking my photos; seeing myself through her eyes; and parti cipati ng in a project with so many str ong women,” she says. “I fi rmly think that home is where the heart is. We all share a house called the earth, but in my opinion, a home is a place where your heart feels warm and where you may be who you really are in fl esh and bone.”
Student affairs officer and single mother from Syria
“In the beginning, I thought that starting a new life all over again – finding a new house, learning a new language, finding a job – would be the biggest challenge. Now, I think that being a stranger wherever I go is the challenge that I need to deal with for the rest of my life. I learned that even if I spoke the language, found a job, and got the papers, I would always be the outsider,” says Nour Alhalbouni. “In the most difficult moments, my son gave me the strength to continue. He was the reason that made me open my eyes every single morning.” Alhalbouni hopes that her son will grow up to never live as a stranger. “Home is a small word with big meaning. Home is where I feel safe, am respected, where I have rights, and love. I met Thana on her first project, and I admired her message. She never shows refugees as weak people in need of help; she always spotlights our strengths. During the session I was looking at her camera and I was proud of who I am, and what I have achieved. My message to the world is to stop looking at refugees as numbers; we are human beings with souls, hopes, and dreams.”
Pre-med student and new mother from Afghanistan
Much of Faroq’s work is about dispelling the false assumptions and derogatory narratives that surround refugees and migrants. These images seek to capture the beauty and power of these women and the complex identities and emotions that they move through and embody. Sara is the only subject who is not a refugee. She came to the Netherlands two years ago to be with her Dutch husband when fighting escalated in Afghanistan. “In many of these cases we are passing on intergenerational trauma to our children, but we are also passing on intergenerational strength and resilience,” comments Faroq, of her wishes for Sara’s new baby.
Student from Eritrea
“Many of these migrants and stateless individuals were with me during my transitional period from Yemen to the Netherlands,” recounts Faroq. “Hellen is one of them; she was with me for the past three years, both in my first book, I Don’t Recognise Me in the Shadows, and now in my new project. There is something magical about this visual continuation with the women I photograph. The act of creating becomes therapeutic and investigative. Through the making of portraiture, and playing with the physicality of the image itself, a woman’s gaze can be read as a mode of self-surveillance. Hellen and other women in this journey provide me with all these insights.” Hellen grew up between Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan. Having lived as a stateless person her entire life, she made her way to the Netherlands as an asylum seeker. “I asked her once if the Netherlands was her final destination,” recalls Faroq. “I’ll never have a final destination,” she responded.
Marwa Al Yafe’e
Community trainer, single mother from Yemen
“The biggest challenge has been starting again,” says Marwa Al Yafe’e. “My parents, my sisters, and my daughter and the fact that I want to make everything better for her,” have given her the strength to continue in her hardest moments. Now, she is trying to start her own business in catering and introduce Yemeni cuisine. “I still do not have an answer to the question, ‘Where is home?’” she remarks. Meanwhile, she found joy in this photographic project. “It was made by another fellow Yemeni artist, and Thana lets the whole world see that every woman still has a part of her homeland in her heart, which is true, and that we are still strong enough to stand.” Faroq elaborates, “Marwa gives me joy, she provides me comfort and the space to be. We almost speak the same dialect, she cooks great Yemeni food, and gives me the comfort of home.”
Originally published in the September 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia