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The refugee’s gift: An exhibition of remarkable lives

Tuesday, 20 May 2014 13:15 GMT

Hasan Abdalla came to Britain in 2011 from Syria where he had been imprisoned because of his political views. He had to leave his wife and teenage son in Damascus. He is an artist, a university lecturer in English literature and a prize-winning writer. He is looking for opportunities to exhibit his art and is seeking work as a teaching assistant but in that respect he fears his age is against him. He is 58. Photo credit: Bill Knight

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The exhibition features millionaires and carers, centenarians and teenage Olympic hopefuls who've fled to Britain

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Refugees in Britain: a drain on state resources or a gift to the nation? In photographer Bill Knight’s eyes, it’s definitely the latter.

He’s met and photographed millionaires and carers, centenarians and teenage Olympic hopefuls, who’ve all fled persecution or war and started a new life in Britain. The result is an exhibition of some 40 portraits, each person holding a treasured object. It's organised by the Refugee Council and opens later this month in London.

He spoke to Thomson Reuters Foundation about how the refugees inspired him.

Why did you decide to do this exhibition?

A fit of anger. A few years ago … I was going through St Pancras station (in London) and there was a big exhibition of beautiful photographs of refugees. But they were all miserable. They were unhappy people who had been taken away from their country and basically wanted to go back.

And that’s perfectly legitimate … but it made me cross because I thought there’s another side to this.  Because I knew through photographing for the Refugee Council, that there are many, many refugees who … have decided to make a life here and who make a real contribution to the UK.

What struck you when you met the refugees?

The exhibition is called “The Refugee’s Gift”, the gift that they bring of their skills, and determination and their abilities.

But they bring another more subtle gift: they remind us how important freedom is.

This is what they wanted, this is why they’ve come here, and we take it for granted.

I was in (the Libyan city of) Benghazi a couple of years ago photographing the people trying to run the place after the end of Muammar Gaddafi, and … I asked the chap running the art museum there: “What’s the most important thing about art?” … And he said … “freedom”. And that stopped me in my tracks.

That kept recurring to me as I took these pictures, how important the things that we have, how important they are and how much we take them for granted.

Who particularly evoked that sense of importance of freedom?

Bob Hepple, who was arrested for being Nelson Mandela’s lawyer. He’s had a very eminent legal career here, and talking to him it did strike me very much – because I’m a lawyer myself – how it was to operate under a legal system which wasn’t really a legal system and to come to one that is … Made me realise how important our own legal system is.

And Hasan Abdalla, a 58-year-old painter from Syria, … painter, prize-winning author, and now he’s sitting in a flat in north London and all that’s been taken away from him. But nevertheless, he’s doing his painting … he’s trying to sell it, he hasn’t given up. But it just brings home to you the huge disruption in your life that can happen just because, in his case, he spoke out against the regime in Syria.

Who else stood out for you?

Elsbeth Juda – she’s 102, and I had a really nice time photographing her … Absolutely undimmed by 102 years of living.

What else inspired you about the refugees you met?

It sounds a bit corny to say it, but it’s the human spirit, the spirit that says: This is my country now, I’ve got one life and I’m going to live it.

Their courage is not overt, it’s just the determination to get on with it. It’s no good pretending they’ve put their past behind them, they don’t really, they carry it with them. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to live in the present.

About the photographer:

Bill Knight has been a photographer all his life. He’s also worked as a lawyer for 40 years, was senior partner of Simmons & Simmons law firm, deputy chairman of council at Lloyd’s of London, and was awarded an OBE for services to financial regulation.

The Refugee’s Gift will run between May 27 and June 20 at St Martin in the Fields, London.

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