Breaking the wall of indifference – one refugee at a time

Last time we went berserk with our personal rant about street photography. Thank you all for your feedback and thoughts. The worst that can happen to the craft of photography is avoiding difficult topics and refraining from honest conversations.

Today, I would like to talk about something much more important. There is no question that the last few months have been very contentious. All I had to do was open up my social media feeds and a generous supply of political opinions and arguments flew my way – whether I wanted them or not. Most of the time I tried to stay out of it. It is not that I didn’t have an opinion – far from it! Those of you who read my blog know that I can spout off without much incentive. I avoid engagement for one good reason – my health.           

Well, I changed my mind or rather my mind has been changed by a series of random events. Let me explain.

I will never forget when I was a teenager my parents took me for a trip from eastern Berlin to western Berlin – back then separated by the infamous Berlin Wall. When you approached the Berlin Wall from the west side you could climb small viewing platforms which allowed you to take a peek at the other side. Late at night when looking at west Berlin you saw lights, music, sometimes people laughing, partying, the sounds of a busy city at night. On the other side (east Berlin) it was pitch black and silent with no lights as if nobody lived there. Occasionally you noticed security towers with armed soldiers carrying weapons ready cocked and occasional beams of light scanning the area for possible defectors. It was one of the saddest sights I have ever seen in my life.

The following day, we visited a cemetery of all the people that were shot trying to get over the wall and escape the regime. Many of them bled to death lying for hours unattended near the wall on the east side (no help was allowed from the west side).

Why am I writing about this? In short, because I am saddened and outraged that today after so many years of breaking down walls, both physical and mental, we are returning to re-building those walls. It is beyond my comprehension that there are still people in this world who think that by separating themselves from others, they are going to be safer and happier. History has a multitude of examples of what happens to such societies – they are locking themselves in physical and mental prisons with no light, freedom or new ideas. In time, the lack of openness, compassion and fresh thinking causes those prisons to crumble and suffocate those inside.   

Sounds dark? Here is the good news. I am very proud and privileged to live in a country which not only accepts refugees but is grateful for doing so. Many people think that it is the Canadian Government that somehow accepts and is taking care of all the refugees. Be ready for a surprise! In fact, there are thousands of private citizens, religious and civil organizations that sponsor, welcome, support and help refugees to settle in Canada. As a member of a local community that is doing just that, I’ve had the privilege of participating, supporting, observing and photographing the process of bringing two families here – one from Syria and one from Iraq.

Of course there is a lengthy application process, the costs of which are covered by communities, churches or organizations willing to be sponsors. Before a refugee family arrives, a community rents an apartment, furnishes it and prepares all the basics. The response of the community was overwhelming. Let me give you an example. When they were looking for items to furnish one apartment, they received so many donations that they couldn’t accept things any more (from furniture, toys, toasters, TVs, kitchen gear… you name it). For example, a local IKEA store donated brand new mattresses for the entire family – I could go on and on! This also included making sure that the children’s rooms are stuffed with toys!

Volunteers picked up the families from the airport and drove them to their new homes. They were provided with funds for the first year and assisted by volunteers to help them with the basic rituals of life in Canada such as shopping or getting to the doctor. In the first year, the families are supported by members to learn English, sign the kids up for school and find jobs. The objective is to help the families to be independent after the first year.

I had the privilege of photographing their arrival and some community events. However, I did my best to avoid being intrusive. Keep in mind that some of these families have been through a very traumatic experience. 

Recently, I attended a party celebrating the one-year anniversary of their arrival. Then, I started to think. I looked at myself, my friends, my community – most of us immigrants, refugees from other countries that were welcomed in Canada over the last few decades and now live a relatively comfortable life in a safe, prosperous country. Many of us are busy with work, activities and the responsibilities of everyday life. The refugee families have given us an opportunity to stop, breathe, open up, pause the daily routine and reach out. What a privilege! I just realized that although we helped those families, they helped us just as much to be compassionate and understanding.

Let’s keep breaking down the walls. 









a year later…




2017 © Olafphoto. All rights reserved.


12 thoughts on “Breaking the wall of indifference – one refugee at a time

  1. When American veterans aren’t dying while waiting on treatment and other Americans aren’t homeless, I’m all for helping non-Americans. We’ve got a lot to do for our own before welcoming others to the land of milk and honey.

  2. Olaf, thank you so much for your courage in writing this piece. It so encourages me to hear people of conscience speak. Your photography and your humanity are inspiring. Maybe more accurately, the humanity in your words and your images inspire me. Again, thank you.

  3. Free movement of people across borders isn’t practical at the same time as we have systems in place, which guarantee welfare for everyone. It’s not economically sustainable to keep importing millions of people from third world countries and giving them a western standard of living “for free” (i.e. paid for by someone else).

    On top of that, when a large number of those economical migrants falsely claiming refugee status have no respect for local laws and values, but rather adhere to and act in accordance with the teachings of their violent stone age religion, they have no business staying in the west and causing nothing but severe social and economical problems. If someone moves here, doesn’t cause trouble and works for a living, they’re more than welcome to stay regardless of race or culture. However the rest of them can **** off and start working towards fixing their own society, rather than ruining ours.

    1. Turms,

      There is a key, crucial difference between economic/social migrants and refugees.

      While I disagree with most of your points I agree in one instance “If someone moves here, doesn’t cause trouble and works for a living, they’re more than welcome to stay regardless of race or culture.” In fact, most people moving to Canada cause no problems and work very hard (I know this from first hand accounts). Unfortunately, some populist politicians in many countries try to blame ‘foreigners,’ refugees or migrants for economic and social problems caused by numerous factors (automatization, rise of Asian economies etc..) and their lack of planning how to tackle those changes. It is easy to point fingers at one group and blame them for chronic lack of solutions/mismanagement.

      We should be smarter than that.

      Appreciate your perspective but not the language.


      P.S. The Government of Canada just announced to grant asylum to 1,200 primarily Yazidi refugees, mostly women abused by ISIS. Yes, I am perfectly fine with my taxpayer $ to support this noble cause even if my own standard of living would decline because of it.

  4. You have much to be proud of. I hope us (USA) Americans can get back on track but the immediate future does not look so promising. I have no interest in walls.

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