ISTANBUL – Through her camera lens Italian native Delizia Flaccavento explores the plight of Iraqi immigrants who have fled to Turkey. In a project this winter the photojournalist took over 6,000 photos of the Chaldean Christian Iraqi community in Turkey raising awareness on the ‘other victims’ of the Iraqi War.
In a rare project, Italian photojournalist Delizia Flaccavento spent months capturing the hopes and lives of Istanbulâ€™s Iraqi migrants in an effort to remind the world of some of the warâ€™s forgotten victims. “My intent with the project was to create awareness,” Flaccavento told the HÃ¼rriyet Daily News. “When we hear news of Iraq we never hear about the refugees who are one of the most tragic consequences of the war. So for me it was important to shed a little light on this.”
Flaccavento, a professor of documentary photography and photojournalism at Yeditepe and Bilgi Universities, has been living in Istanbul for a year and her work with Iraqi immigrants was her first project here. Her work was exhibited at the Italian Cultural Center earlier this month and the photographer said she hopes to show the collection wherever it is welcome.
Her exhibition had a very positive response and she said the opportunity to share her experience with some of her students was valuable to her. Many of them were not aware of the Iraqi community in the city.
“They were surprised by the kind of access I got – entering the houses of some people, becoming familiar with your subject – and this is something I try to teach them,” she said. “Everything you do requires time. In photography you might be talented and have a good eye, but to get really meaningful images you have to understand first, connect with your subject and take a lot of time taking photos.”
Flaccavento estimates that she took approximately 6,000 photos of Turkeyâ€™s Iraqis this winter with her digital Canon; never using a flash.
“In other situations I use a flash, but in this case I didnâ€™t want to be intrusive at all; if the room was badly lit I wanted to show that, so I only used natural light,” she said.
Many of the photos were taken at the epicenter of the community, St. Antoine Church, in Istanbul, where Iraqis, most of whom are Aramaic speaking Chaldean Catholics, gather every Sunday. There, she said, she witnessed one of the grimmer sides of the Iraqi War, even though it was kilometers away.
“I think some of the saddest moments were in the church when relatives got news that someone got killed in Iraq,” said Flaccavento. “There were special services, and the women were dressed in black, and crying to the priest; you know this happens quite often. The deaths do happen daily.”
Flaccavento said gaining access to the Iraqi community here was easy.
“They are very welcoming,” she said. “They said, â€™you are like our sisterâ€™; so they really developed friendship. But on the other hand itâ€™s difficult in the sense to witness their hardship; itâ€™s hard to see people suffering and waiting. From a human point of view itâ€™s a little hard to see.”
Immigrant reality in Turkey
The photographer said that of the thousands of Iraqi immigrants in Turkey, only a few are lucky enough to gain asylum in other countries. In 2007 only 758 Iraqi immigrants were accepted by the United States. Flaccavento said she knew of cases of immigrants literally in limbo for over 10 years waiting for asylum. While here, even if they are able to receive refugee status from the United Nations Refugee Agency, they are still obligated by Turkey to pay steep monthly fees in order to stay in country and fines if they fail to report to the police daily or weekly. Finding work is a challenge.
The photographer said there is a pattern of justified frustration among the refugees.
“They come here with the hope to move quickly and be able to start a new life soon, but they get stuck here,” she said. “On the other hand adapting to Turkey is not hard for them. The food is similar, some words come from Arabic; so culturally itâ€™s not exactly a shock. But in other aspects it is frustrating to adapt. They cannot work, itâ€™s difficult to obtain a work permit and they miss their own country.”
Apart from some families with “big American dreams,” Flaccavento said, most would not have chosen to leave Iraq.
“I heard 35-year-old women saying, â€™my life is finished, everything Iâ€™m doing is for my children, I hope a better future for them,â€™” Said Flaccavento. “Thatâ€™s how old I am. I would never see my life as finished, but thatâ€™s how they see it. They always say: â€™Itâ€™s for our children.â€™”
While in the United States Flaccavento did a project on the Italian American community in Brooklyn, which she describes as “much lighter” than the Iraqi endeavor though she said the immigration experience is always traumatic suspending people between worlds.
“One thing is an economic migration and one thing is a war situation that forces you to seek asylum,” she said.
The predominating tension the immigrants describe is the rise of intolerance in their home country as allied forces encourage segregation based on religion. Under Saddam Husseinâ€™s regime they said Muslims and Christians lived in peace. So in some ways Istanbul better represents the Iraq they feel they have lost, explained Flaccavento.
“They long to go back,” said Flaccavento. “Those who say theyâ€™ll never go back are also more reticent to talk and have probably had very traumatic experiences during the war. God knows what happened. They are very attached. They would tell me, Inshallah one day you will come to Iraq and you will be our guest; we will eat Iraqi food, we will dance together and we will show you all the beautiful places.”
Flaccavento said she hopes to start a new project in Turkey soon. “Itâ€™s a very visual country, very diverse, very complex so itâ€™s really a challenge to try to work on projects here, but also it can be really rewarding