These Refugee Artists Show The Real Risks On The Path To Europe

For Eritreans, the potentially fatal trip across the Mediterranean Sea is only the last of many dangerous steps in the flight from home.

Mebrahtu is a 45-year-old man on a mission.

Denis Bosnic/Jesuit Refugee Service

He is a refugee from Eritrea, and he knows that thousands of others like him dream about going to Europe. But he's afraid they might not think through the risks of getting there.

So he's painting what those risks look like. Mebrahtu started painting when he was young, because he saw his brother do it and he was impressed. Now, he tries to put those years of self-study to work to potentially save lives.

Mebrahtu teaches at a refugee camp in Mai Aini, in northern Ethiopia.

Denis Bosnic/Jesuit Refugee Service

Eritreans have been fleeing to Ethiopia to escape a host of human rights abuses, from political persecutions and forced military service to forced labor. Some are also fleeing poverty.

At the camp where Mebrahtu lives, 50% of the camp population are children. They're eager to express what they've been through, and what they fear. He teaches about 50 students at a youth center run by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), an international aid organization, and his art class has been running for about three years.

But it can be hard to feel like you have much of a future if you live in a refugee camp, and people can be tempted by dreams of Europe. So far this year, nearly 130,000 people have crossed from Africa through the Mediterranean Sea to Italy's shores.

While his students are talented, the pictures they paint are not pretty β€” literally and figuratively.

Denis Bosnic/Jesuit Refugee Service

Eritreans make up the biggest number of refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. It's a dangerous journey that has claimed many lives, and Mebrahtu wants people to understand what they're really getting into if they decide to go.

Arriving safely takes courage and luck β€” and money. Mebrahtu has learned this from the horror stories he has heard. One man Mebrahtu knows was kidnapped with refugees in Egypt by people who threatened not to release anyone without ransom. The man told Mebrahtu that the kidnappers took him in a car and showed him a human skull.

He escaped, and he made it back to the refugee camp in Ethiopia. That makes him one of the luckiest people not to complete the journey: Many are abandoned in the desert, or die of starvation. Women and girls are often abused.

When Mebrahtu reflects on the stories of risk and abuse that are so common, he is sad, but not necessarily surprised.

"You can't expect mercy from beasts," he says. He and his students shared their stories with JRS in April for the organization's "Artists in Motion" campaign.

Mebrahtu wants to use art to show the dangers of smuggling to Europe β€” and, hopefully, to persuade people not to take the risk.

Angela Wells/Jesuit Refugee Service

The smuggling route Mebrahtu's fellow countrymen follow is long and dangerous β€” through the uninhabitable Sahara Desert, then unstable Libya, and across the water to Italy.

More than 3,000 people have died or gone missing in the sea this year, according to the UN refugee agency, and no one knows how many people have died in the desert.

For Mebrahtu and other Eritreans in Ethiopia, the dangers actually started at home.

Angela Wells/Jesuit Refugee Service

"When crossing the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia, many of our people died," he told JRS. This painting is about a mother and her three sons, left behind in Eritrea. One of her children drowned in a river near the border, and she and the boys stayed behind. The rest of the family kept going, to Ethiopia.

"Other people who I know did not make it this far – they were eaten by wild animals or killed by the military," He said. "This is still happening today."

Everyone who makes it to Ethiopia has already faced terror.

Angela Wells/Jesuit Refugee Service

"Deciding to leave your home is the most difficult decision a person can make," says Mebrahtu's student, Abel, who is 19. He's painted a family sneaking across the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

They move, he says, "in total silence, so the military patrolling the border will not find and kill them."

But for those who continue, trying to get to Europe, there is even more danger β€” as Mefin learned when his brother was kidnapped in Sudan.

Angela Wells/Jesuit Refugee Service

His brother was trying to get to Europe, but armed men captured him and held him in a prison. Friends and family had to cobble together the $10,000 ransom for his release. "The militias," Mefin says, "will murder anyone who cannot pay."

Mefin painted this picture to honor other people who can't buy their way out.

(Mefin is not his real name; JRS said it gave him a pseudonym for security reasons.)

"I really want to show the international community that this is happening to real people."

Angela Wells/Jesuit Refugee Service

Filmon, who is 17, can't stop thinking about the stories he heard from refugees who escaped kidnapping in the Sinai desert.

"[They] 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," he said.

The young painters learn their moving, unambiguous symbolism from their teacher, whose paintings force a confrontation with the reality of the journey.

Angela Wells/Jesuit Refugee Service

"I'm sure there are better artists than me out there, but I believe that if I can express my ideas through my paintings, I can help explain many things to other people," Mebrahtu says.

Even if you make it, memories of the home you left behind can hurt.

Angela Wells/Jesuit Refugee Service

A 24-year-old named Tesfalem painted this picture about a friend of his. "She is so homesick for her family in Eritrea. She remembers her home and her brothers and sisters, who are represented with flowers. She is doubting her decision to leave and she suffers whenever she thinks of home," Tesfalem told JRS staff member who visited the camp last year.

Today, though, Tesfalem is missing. Friends think he tried to get to Europe, but no one has heard from him in nearly a year.

Mebrahtu says regardless of whether β€” or where β€” you find safety, no one is ever really free after that kind of journey.

Angela Wells/Jesuit Refugee Service

"I believe that even if people manage to reach Europe, they'll never be able to erase these memories from their minds," he says.

Today, these paintings, and others by Mebrahtu and his students, are in the early days of a global tour.

Angela Wells/Jesuit Refugee Service

They've been on exhibit in Nairobi, Kenya β€” a country that has recently become unwelcoming to refugees β€” in the Somali neighborhood of Eastleigh and at PAWA254, a space for arts and social change. They've also been exhibited at an international conference in Nigeria, focused on human trafficking.

Next up, exhibitions in Rome and Washington, D.C. Stay tuned.