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Finding Refuge

An exploration of the refugee experience from a writer and a photographer

Zaw Win, Burma, 2005

Photos by Brendan Bannon


Finding Refuge in Buffalo, a photo/essay collection celebrating Buffalo’s immigrant and refugee community, runs through May 31 at Horizons Gallery. “Refuge” is a collaboration between WNED/WBFO, University at Buffalo’s Director of Journalism Jody K. Biehl, and internationally recognized photographer Brendan Bannon.


Through this work, Biehl has found refuge of her own. She was teaching in Berlin in 2016, just as the issue of immigration began to explode in the public consciousness. That year, Germany took in over a million refugees. Biehl, a former Der Spiegel editor, seized the teachable moment. She sought to connect with refugee stories—and wanted her students to tell them. “Not all the work was superlative or usable,” Biehl admits. “But the stories were there. I knew we had something.”


Mahamud Mberwa, Somali Bantu Farm leader.  Photographed at home with his family in Buffalo, NY. Mahamud Mberwa, Somalia, 2006


Biehl left Berlin fascinated with these issues—and brought that energy to UB. In her feature writing class that spring, Biehl required her students to profile Buffalo refugees. She hoped making a local connection might better engage them. “It bothers me when students feel disconnected from what they learn on campus,” Biehl says. “Or that they don’t get out in the city to meet people that represent a piece of the national dialogue.”


Enter Bannon. After securing funding, Biehl hired the accomplished photographer to accompany her students on interview field trips and photograph their subjects. Bannon, himself the son of a Ukrainian refugee, jumped at the chance. He had worked in refugee camps all over the world, teaching both photography and writing in far-fling locations. “The often-overlooked reality is that refugee camps are filled with human beings,” Bannon said. “Nobody thinks about how it was for them before their lives were disrupted by tragic circumstances.”


Joseph Giambra, Italy, 1929


Finding Refuge features this work and much more. Over the last two years, Biehl and Bannon have documented many more Buffalo immigrant stories across different communities. “We want to create community and reflect on our own family stories and histories—most of which involve migration from one place to another,” Bannon says. “You will have the opportunity to encounter unique American stories and American lives.” Attendees will also have the chance to digitally record their own stories, which Biehl plans on databasing and making available for public research as “a repository of immigration stories across time.”


Biehl’s root purpose hasn’t changed: education. “My deep goal is for people to have discussions about each other,” Biehl says. “We were all once immigrants, and Buffalo is a microcosm for all these stories across the country. We want to make this huge global issue a local one.”   


Irena Woszczak, Poland, 1958



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