Perspective Shift: What the Refugee Community Is Teaching Me About My Work

The more I think about it, the more I realize that these photos do exactly what they’re supposed to. They illustrate Ismael’s life as a person who wants to resettle, get on with his life, and live like other citizens.

by James Roh, Cotopaxi Ambassador

Peering through my camera’s viewfinder, I snap yet another photo of Ismael handing a customer her receipt and change. It’s got to be the sixth or seventh time today that I’ve taken this exact shot. I let my camera dangle at my side as I search for any other possible photo opportunity. “There’s got to be something more interesting in here to shoot!” I think to myself. After a while, the monotony is broken as I follow Ismael to the basement to retrieve some u-shaped neck pillows for the store. It’s a different scene, but not more exciting.

Cotopaxi, along with its nonprofit partner, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), connected me with Ismael to document refugees resettling in Salt Lake. Ismael, a refugee from Uganda, has a job at the Salt Lake City airport as a supervisor to several stores. This was a big break for him and was key to his story; however, as I follow Ismael, I struggle to make these ordinary scenes come to life.

Ismael hands a customer her change during his evening shift as a supervisor of several Paradies Lagardere shops in the Salt Lake City International Airport.

Finally, Ismael clocks out for lunch, and we take a seat at a restaurant.

“Being a refugee is not a choice,” Ismael says, looking up from his food. Behind him, a steady stream of passengers walks towards the baggage carousels. “No one wants to be a refugee.”

Between bites, he continues in his thick accent over the din of the airport. His words are firm, yet thoughtful and respectful. It’s clear this isn’t his first time considering his status as a refugee in the United States. His comments are powerful in the face of our country’s recent political turmoil, travel bans, and increased xenophobia. I scribble notes frantically, trying to keep up.

“A few people spoil the name of a nation. Most people are good. We cannot generalize a whole nation on one person’s behavior.”

At first, I feel like Ismael’s quotes contrast heavily with the banal photos I’ve taken of him. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that these photos do exactly what they’re supposed to. They’re perfect. My photos illustrate Ismael’s life as a person who wants to resettle, get on with his life, and live like other citizens. He’s a refugee, but that status does not define him.

After lunch, Ismael and I shake hands, say goodbye, and make plans to meet up the following week. As part of IRC’s resettlement program, Ismael’s test-driving a car he’s looking to buy. For many, this experience is routine; for Ismael, it’s anything but. Within the context of his story, it’s significant. It’s another step towards normalcy, autonomy, and eventually, a new life.

Ismael completes a car buying class with Shauna La Beau, a financial education specialist at the IRC.
Ismael happily shakes hands with car salesman, Italo Jussani, after successfully negotiating a deal to purchase the car he’s spent months saving for.
Ismael test drives a Ford Edge, his vehicle of choice, at Fiuza Motors in Midvale, UT.

Ismael, and the stories of others like him, help me explore big issues via personal, everyday moments. My goal is to provide unique insight — to build compassion, bridge communities, and combat misunderstandings. I’m trying to tell a bigger, more accurate story about the world, even if sometimes that means my photos won’t rack up likes on Instagram. With my camera in hand, I realize I can share Ismael’s story with the world. I can highlight the plight of people whose stories need to be told. From the mundane, my photographs can create meaning and make a difference.

James Roh (@james_myron_roh) is a Cotopaxi ambassador, writer, and photographer. He’s traveled to many of our nonprofit partners, and he works extensively with the IRC to shed light on the plight of refugees around the world.

Update: Ismael qualified for a initiative from the IRC that provided a matching grant towards the down payment of a car. With his newfound mobility, Ismael has decided to relocate to Columbus, Ohio where he will reunite with friends from the Kenyan refugee camp.