"I use art to show that Eritreans are dying in horrible ways. There are many memorials held here in the camp for people who’ve been killed or have died of thirst in the desert," said Filmon (Denis Bosnic/Jesuit Refugee Service).

Mai Aini, 18 November 2016 – When Filmon feels lonely or upset, he hides himself in an art studio in Mai Aini refugee camp in Ethiopia. 

He is one of 50 painters of all ages who come to express themselves in JRS art classes where they illustrate multi-faceted issues of displacement – from persecution to flight; dangerous journeys to their hopes and dreams. 

Many of these painters’ friends and families have become frustrated with the camp’s limited opportunities and have decided to take their chances to reach Europe via the most precarious migration route in the world. He keeps in touch with those who have made it safely on social media, but has many other friends who have stopped responding to his WhatsApp messages. Filmon believes these friends have simply disappeared on the merciless voyage.

A sense of perpetual worry and grieving for loved ones amongst all camp residents drives him to bring these realities to life through his art. 

"I use art to show that Eritreans are dying in horrible ways. There are many memorials held here in the camp for people who’ve been killed or have died of thirst in the desert," he said.

In addition to the 3,000-some people known to have died in the Mediterranean Sea in 2016, an unknown number of people have died en-route to the seashore. Human rights groups have documented systematic torture and trafficking of asylum seekers in African deserts this year by networks of traffickers and militias. 

Sometimes those detained are forced to call relatives in the camp to beg them for ransom to end their torture – an impossible request for people subsisting in a refugee camp with no income. Most do not know whether their loved ones are dead or alive.

Watch Filmon's inspiring story here:

Filmon and his fellow artists hope their art will bring attention to this issue in the camp to prevent more refugees from taking dangerous routes.

"Many people have learned from my paintings. Some cry when they see them and understand the difficulties that come on the journey. These can save them by creating an understanding that the risk is not worth it."

Perhaps more importantly, the artists also want to inspire leaders to pursue policies that allow refugees to live and move in more dignified ways.

While explaining his painting, Pain, he said:

"Eritrean refugees often try to escape their situation, but when traveling through the Sinai desert many are kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured. They are stripped naked, branded with fire and beaten with whips.  The kidnappers chain their legs and hands releasing them once their relatives send high ransoms. If they cannot pay, traffickers will remove their organs from their bodies to sell them on the black market.  

I’ll never forget when some refugees who miraculously escaped a Sinai prison returned to this camp and showed us the scars on their back from being flogged. There are times where videos and pictures are posted on Facebook and we see people we know beaten up, hung upside down or even slaughtered like sheep. There are parents here who have been receiving calls for two years from their tortured sons begging them to pay the ransom, but they have nothing here.

I want to stop this punishment against people who are only trying to save their lives. I want to show the victims' loved ones that they have not been forgotten. I want to persuade people that these dangerous routes are not worth the risk. I really want to show the international community that this is happening to real people." 

Until refugees, especially youth, are given opportunities to study, work and ultimately integrate in their first countries of asylum, JRS worries this disturbing trend will continue globally.

Paintings from artists ranging in age from 13 to 45 are being showcased in an ongoing JRS campaign, Artists in Motion. Their art has been exhibited at a multicultural festival in Nairobi, Kenya as well as a Caritas-sponsored conference on human trafficking in Nigeria. In Rome, the World Union of Jesuit Alumni also hosted the exhibition at a recent conference whereby a Congolese refugee displaced in Italy gifted one painting to Pope Francis.

In 2017, the exhibitions will tour throughout the United States at Babson College, Mercyhurst University and the University of Notre Dame as well as potential other locations throughout the country. More specific information about the USA Artists in Motion tour and opportunities to purchase the art in an online auction as well as a comprehensive booklet with narratives behind the paintings can be found on the JRS Eastern Africa website.  

Angela Wells, JRS Eastern Africa Communications Officer 

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