REAL LIFE: Framing refugee lives in pictures

Carmel didn’t waste any time. He quickly began playing pick-up games with a friend at a park in north Aurora, which was where he eventually met a man who coached a team of players from the African Community Center in Denver. It was with that group that he began to absorb stories, both gripping and tragic, that resonated with him — and mirrored his own

AURORA | When Goshen Carmel first arrived in Aurora from Ethiopia in 2010, he had the same dream as countless 16-year-olds across the globe.

“I had a goal to become a professional soccer player — that was my main goal when I got here,” says Carmel, now 23. “In Africa, being a professional soccer player is, like, the most popular thing, so that’s what I wanted to become.”

20170710-Immigrant Photo-Aurora, Colorado

Photos taken by immigrants hang in the Aurora History Museum for the Picture Me Here exhibit on Monday July 10, 2017 at Aurora History Museum. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

20170710-Immigrant Photo-Aurora, Colorado

Eric Mitchell, exhibit curator for the Aurora History Museum prepares prints to be hung in the Picture Me Here exhibit on Monday July 10, 2017 at Aurora History Museum. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

20170710-Immigrant Photo-Aurora, Colorado

Eric Mitchell, exhibit curator for the Aurora History Museum, hangs a photo for the Picture Me Here exhibit on Monday July 10, 2017 at Aurora History Museum. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

Carmel didn’t waste any time. He quickly began playing pick-up games with a friend at a park in north Aurora, which was where he eventually met a man who coached a team of players from the African Community Center in Denver. It was with that group that he began to absorb stories, both gripping and tragic, that resonated with him — and mirrored his own.

“During practice I was hanging out with some of my friends and people who came to the United States as refugees, and most of them were sharing their stories and all of the atrocities and hard times they faced before they moved to the U.S.,” Carmel said. “And I feel like I related to their hardships.”

A refugee himself, Carmel fled his native Democratic Republic of Congo when he was 12, eventually obtaining refugee status in Adis Ababa, Ethiopia. He lived there for four years with two brothers and one sister, while several of his other siblings and his mother remained in the DRC.

Flash forward to several months after those initial soccer practices and Carmel found himself at a local church, the End Time Message Tabernacle at the corner of East Sixth Avenue and Havana Street, where he got the launch pad he would use for the better part of the next decade of his life: A camera.

“A church member at my church asked if I would volunteer to shoot the sermon every Sunday and that’s how my love of photography and videography started,” he said. “After that I was like, ‘You know, what I need to do is start photographing and getting footage of refugees coming here to Colorado.’”

And that’s what he did. For the past several years, Carmel has photographed fellow refugees as they acclimate to their new lives in Aurora and Denver.

“They come here legally but they’re still treated as foreigners and people who are worthless,” he said. “For this exhibit, I wanted to show this is your bother, or your sister; this is the future of tomorrow. These are people who move to the United States with big dreams … I just want to show these are normal people.”

Carmel’s photos are among dozens on display at the Aurora History Museum this summer as a part of a new exhibit, entitled “Picture Me Here: Stories of Hope and Resilience by Immigrants and Refugees.” The exhibit will feature three different stories centered on the lives of refugees now living in Aurora: A display by Carmel, another by several Bhutanese women and another entitled, “Damak to Denver,” which features the story of how several Nepali refugees made their way to Denver from their native country in 2014.

The photos are each a part of the larger “Picture Me Here” project, which has helped provide language and acclimation services, as well as storytelling tools like cameras, to refugees from Aurora and across the metro area for the past five years.

T. Scott Williams, director of the Aurora History Museum, said the decision to partner with “Picture Me Here” matched well with the museum’s ongoing push to feature works from across the globe.

“We’re looking for new ways to bring new perspectives to our audience and to the city of Aurora,” Williams said. “…By showcasing these images, we’re inviting people to engage in a dialogue about migration, putting yourself in other people’s shoes and seeing these people’s sometime horrendous experiences. I think that leads to better understanding and a more harmonious community.”

Carmel, who is currently working toward getting an associates degree in videography at Front Range Community College in Westminster, has been involved with “Picture Me Here” as a student and a mentor for several years. Last year, the organization even helped him organize a trip to the White House in Washington D.C., where he was honored as a part of National Welcoming Week.

“Coming all the way from Congo, having a chance to go to the White House … it felt like I was in a movie,” he said. “It was amazing.”

Carmel said he feels that working with “Picture Me Here” and sharing refugee’s stories is valuable work.

“I feel like through photography you can see these are innocent souls that need to be given a chance to adjust here in the United States,” he said. “I just want to show the beauty of humanity in a different lens.”

“Picture Me Here: Stories of Hope and Resilience by Immigrants and Refugees”

Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m Saturday and Sunday. Closed Mondays. Open now through Sept. 22. The Aurora History Museum, 15051 E. Alameda Pkwy. Entry is free. Call 303-739-6660 or visit auroramuseum.org for more information.

The exhibit will also tie into the city’s Global Fest festivities later this August, according to Williams. He said there will be significant signage leading attendees from the Great Lawn in front of the Aurora Municipal Center to the Aurora History Museum on the west side of the lot.