When James A. Bowey was first starting out as a photojournalist, he found himself covering the war in Bosnia. The war lasted between 1992 and 1995.
He recalls a time when he and his driver were out scouting the destroyed ruins and came upon an abandoned school, which had been repurposed as a makeshift shelter for displaced citizens. There he met a woman who had a photograph with her.
The photograph was of her husband, and she told Bowey his story, explaining that he had gone missing and was killed and her sons had gone to look for him. “She had me take a photograph of her and the photo of her husband,” Bowey recalled.
After talking with the woman, he turned to find a line of similar women who were all clutching photographs and mementos. “They told me, please tell our story so that we will not be forgotten,” he said. “It became my mission and the story of my life. My job was to be the shepherd of that story.”
During his “When Home Won’t Let You Stay” presentation Wednesday night at the Owatonna Public Library, Bowey shared similar stories of displaced people: refugees. Bowey’s presentation included minimalist, single image photos of each profile and a brief bit of information and dialogue from his discussion with his subjects.
There was the story of Mohamed from Mogadishu, Somalia, whose father would hug him everyday before school not knowing if his son would return. When a terrorist blew himself up at Mohamed’s high school graduation, he stayed behind to console and help his friend who had lost his eyes.
“All those other students had parents just like Mohamed’s, wondering if they would return home,” Bowey said. This was just one of many stories he shared during the presentation.
Another story involved Yatha from Ka Soe village in Myanmar. Yatha was tortured and attacked by six people who took off his clothes and threw him in the river. His village thought he was dead, but he was eventually found the next morning. He can still remember a girl watching him from the river bank, and witnessing the atrocity.
“All of us are like that girl, watching on the river bank,” Bowey said. “We are all watching this go by and wondering what we are supposed to do.”
While Bowey’s presentation was light on politics, he expressed a need for partisan understanding. “If we can’t learn to agree to disagree, then our democracy flounders,” Bowey explained. “We like to say that the other side is given to tribalism, but the truth is that we all are.”
“Tribalism destroys trust and objectivity and replaces them with competing loyalties,” Bowey added. He feels that due to social media and a fractured political landscape on television, hate has become frictionless.
The stories he told help to illuminate the plight of refugees around the world and can be understood on a universal level. “There are 68,500,000 forcibly displaced people in the world today,” Bowey explained. “There were 16,200,000 people displaced from their home in 2017. That is the most in recorded history.”
“Looking inward to see outward, we allow ourselves the room for reason,” he said of the power of empathy in understanding. “We are wired for empathy, but we have to reclaim our empathetic imagination.”
He also touched upon the importance of American values. “We cannot have freedom for all unless we understand that liberty has two sides,” Bowey explained. “It’s not just an individual right, but something you give to others.”
Bowey used the story of 8-year old Tanitoluwa Adewumi, a refugee whose family was killed in Nigeria and who lives homeless with his father, who rents a car and works as an Uber driver. Adewumi placed first in his age group at the New York State Scholastic Championship chess tournament and has become a social media sensation.
According to Bowey, it is our country’s values and sense of freedom, opportunity, and liberty which allowed young Adewumi to thrive and escape his past hardships. On the reverse he told the story of Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian refugee who won Australia’s most coveted literature prize, but is currently detained in a holding camp in Papua New Guinea.
“We don’t know where possibility will come from,” Bowey said of the two stories. “If we deny others freedom and possibility, we are denying our own freedom and possibility.”
There is much value in the stories that Bowey shares, and the lessons they communicate. “When we engage these stories,” he said. “We are welcoming hope.”
“The hope of each other is intimately connected to the hope of us all,” Bowey concluded. “It is the great multiplier of human connection, and it is not a sacrifice.”
Bowey’s presentation, titled “When Home Won’t Let You Stay,” is currently touring around the state. On Wednesday, March 20 he gave the presentation at the Blooming Prairie Public Library and the Owatonna Public Library.
Those who wish to learn more about Bowey’s project can visit www.whenhomewontletyoustay.org.