Alhamdullilah, We Made It: a photography project with refugees in Yogyakarta. 

A group of Afghani, Iranian, Burmese and Iraqi men approaches the door of Taman Budaya Yogyakarta, with beaming smiles and VIP tickets in hand. They are about to enter ArtJog – the biggest art event in Southeast Asia.

In the foyer is one of Yoko Ono’s Wish Trees. A Hazara man hangs a wish on the tree which reads “I wish in the future I be a good man and I wish as soon as possible I go to Australia and then see my family”.

Unlikely to attend otherwise, these men came with MES56 – a prominent Indonesian photography collective. Commissioned by Adelaide’s OzAsia Festival to produce a photography exhibition, the group chose to focus on the lives of refugees living in protracted transit in their community.

‘Alhamdullilah We Made It’ depicts white silhouettes of refugees in places or in countries that they wish to go – from Australia to the United States. There are homes on quarter-acre blocks, tourist attractions, swimming pools. The artworks draw on posters created by the Australian Government, which are displayed around Yogyakarta to promote Australia’s policy of refusing refugees resettlement from Indonesia.

“It gave us a good context and idea to work with since these refugees would want to come to Australia. So we wanted to realise it with digital manipulation,” says MES member Wimo Bayang. The works were displayed at OzAsia in Adelaide last September, the Song Eun Art Space, Seoul in April this year, and opens this month in Jakarta.

Roughly 50 refugees live in community housing in Yogyakarta, managed by the Indonesian immigration department and the International Organization for Migration. The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Indonesia is a reliable presence here, providing sport activities, English and computer classes. JRS partnered with MES in order to provide access to the facility and help build trust and rapport.

Indonesia is a temporary home to roughly 14,000 asylum seekers and refugees. With Australia’s borders now virtually closed to almost any refugees coming from Indonesia, even via ‘proper’ UNHCR resettlement paths, this number will continue to grow.

MES56’s project was decidedly apolitical, however, choosing to focus on the experiences, hopes and dreams of human beings rather than engage in policy debate or advocacy on behalf of refugees.

“Through art we can learn that this issue is not only between Australia and Indonesia,” says Bayang. “It is a world problem, it’s a human problem. Artists cannot solve political problems or stop wars, only politicians can do that. Artists try to see and show the world that politicians are not able to see.”

The photographers themselves admitted their own ignorance – they too sought to learn about the situation of refugees in Indonesia. Raising awareness of refugee issues in Indonesia for the broader community is of critical importance. A recent Amnesty International survey found that Indonesians were second only to Russians in being the least welcoming country to refugees.

In West Java, for example, long-term Afghani residents in Bogor are often confused with Middle Eastern sex tourists and are thus treated by local people with distain. Yet given Indonesians’ reputation for being hugely hospitable towards foreigners, as well as the fact that a majority of newcomers are Muslim, this is bizarre. It suggests that hostility to asylum seekers comes from sheer ignorance of their plight.

In addition to this month’s exhibition in Jakarta, MES56 and their artist friends ran workshops in photography, videography and screen printing to give the refugee men some skills as well as a creative outlet. The finished works were recently displayed at the collective’s gallery in Yogyakarta along with ‘Alhamdullilah, We Made It’.

Perhaps inspired by the MES56 Project, another Jogja photographer recently completed a three-month workshop with Hazara refugees in Cisarua, West Java – home to an estimated 3,000 refugee asylum seekers. The exhibition was shown at Universitas Indonesia in late July during the Antropologi Simposium, with refugees being offered the chance to discuss their lives and work.

The situation for asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia is not good, and is getting worse. Projects like photography workshops, which provide a means to pass the time and build relationships between refugees and their host local communities, can make life in transit more bearable.

ROH Projects will host ‘Alhamdullilah, We Made It’ between 4-28 August, 2016 in Jakarta at Unit 1-12, First Floor, Pacific Place. For more information contact +6221 51402116 or [email protected].

Max Walden works for an international development NGO in Indonesia and is a Research Assistant with the Sydney Asia Pacific Migration Centre at the University of Sydney.