Over 850,000 migrants and refugees have arrived on European soil since January 1, 2015.
The United States Refugee Agency reports that more than 703,374 people have entered through the Greek islands, travelling primarily from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, in what has become a major humanitarian crisis and a test for the European Union’s cohesion in the face of a challenge that extends throughout the Union and the continent. Refugees and migrants flock to Europe on a perilous journey, many losing their lives in the process.
Trying to help the refugees and raise awareness in New York City about the ongoing situation in the Mediterranean, a Greek artist has been navigating through the Big Apple’s busy public spaces wearing an all too familiar object associated with the crisis: an orange life vest.
Georgia Lale, whose art projects usually revolve around social issues, is a Masters of Fine Arts student at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where she is studying through a scholarship from the Basil and Elise Goulandris foundation, as we as through a scholarship from the School of Visual Arts.
“We all know about it but we forget about it through our everyday life routine,” she told Greek Reporter on the refugee crisis unfolding in Europe. “I want to bring this image into the everyday life routine. I want to interrupt it and bring awareness about the issue,” she said.
Even though the matter of how to deal with refugees and migrants fleeing from conflict has been a contentious issue among the current Presidential candidates, the crisis has not yet reached the United States to the extent that it has in Europe. According to a recent White House tweet, 2,034 Syrian refugees have been granted asylum in the country since 2011. President Barack Obama announced a plan to relocate 10,000 refugees to the U.S. in 2016.
While the orange vest symbolizes hope for life in the effort to reach Europe, Lale also wears a black dress in honor of the people who have lost their lives in the Aegean Sea. 3,485 people have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea since the beginning of the year according to the UNHCR. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that by November 9, eighty-two people had drowned in their effort to reach Greece.
“I was very shocked and I was also feeling a little ashamed,” she said on seeing the crisis unfold in Greece over the summer. “I was struggling with this idea that I cannot help and then I reminded myself that I am an artist, and that art is very strong and can make social statements that can raise awareness and make people more sensitive about this issue”.
Lale noted that aside from the emotions that are evoked by seeing struggling refugees, including their children, she feels she has a personal connection to the situation, as her grandfather was a refugee from Asia Minor to Greece and her grandmother gave birth to one of her children on a boat, coming to Greece.
The Greek student launched the project in October at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Wearing the orange life vest, she walked from the museum’s Syrian art section to the Greek art section. Her trek in the museum not only symbolizes the refugees’ route, it is also pertinent to the fact that both these cultures are faced with a crisis, albeit of a differing nature, she notes.
Her second stop was Times Square, which she chose not only because of the centrality of the location but also because of the nature of the surroundings.
“It is so non-political that it is political. It’s a place that pretends that everything is fine with the world. Full of advertisements, movies, and superheroes. So I decided to do it there and bring this part of tough reality to this space,” she said.
Lale further used symbolism with a march at New York’s High Line – a 1.5 mile long park that used to be a train track. The walk refers to the lines that refugees form during their trip, often following train tracks. This was the first time others joined her and with the increase in the number of people wearing the vests, interest from bystanders grew.
“There was this amazing experience where a mother, because of the performance, explained to her five-year old daughter what it means to be a refugee, and why we are wearing the life vests. It was really interesting because she was explaining to her kid what was happening for the first time,” she noted.
While refugees and migrants enter primarily through the Greek islands, this is usually only their first stop in their lengthy journey throughout Europe. After being transported to the mainland, the vast majority head to the country’s northern border in the small town of Idomeni where there is a narrow entry into FYROM. Once they enter FYROM they typically head to the train station that will take them to Serbia and then further into Europe.
This Balkan Route had been disrupted in recent days after the FYROM government declined entry to refugees and migrants from non-war zone countries, causing a blockade at the border. While thousands passed through on Sunday, FYROM is currently erecting a fence on the border.
Those who accompany Lale in her effort, also use and promote the #orangevest hashatag to spread the message through social media platforms.
Ultimately 15 individuals from India, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China, and the U.S. have joined Lale in her artistic effort. Lale finds this diverse participation to be important because those fleeing war and conflict in their home countries need international assistance.
The Brooklyn Bridge march came two days after the Islamic State carried out attacks on Paris that killed 129 people. Since then a heated debate has ensued about whether the refugee influx is posing a threat to Europe’s security. Lale was initially concerned about people being offended if she followed through with her plan for the Brooklyn Bridge outing so quickly after the attacks.
“Then I decided I cannot continue living in fear. I need to make my statement that the refugees are not the terrorists, they are people escaping this situation and by thinking or believing that they are terrorists we are playing the terrorists’ game. They are playing with our minds,” she noted.
The participants passed out stickers that included the Eiffel Tower peace symbol as well as hashtags for Paris and Beirut. On November 12th, 43 people died in Lebanon’s capital as a result of two Islamic State suicide bombings.
Lale has been documenting her effort through photographer George Xourafas’s lens. She noted that Xourafas was on the Greek island of Kos, chronicling the refugee crisis there, prior to coming to New York. The two Greeks connected through social media when Xourafas expressed his support for the orange vest project. He has been its photographer ever since.
For Lale, this is just the beginning of the project as she wants to expand it and get more people to participate in order to influence individuals and groups with political and financial power to act on the issue. While she has provided the life vests thus far, finding a way to get donations in order to buy more life vests is one of her goals at the moment.
Lale can be contacted at lalegeorgia.net