Photography Exhibit to Portray Refugee Life in Djibouti

Anthropologist Nathalie Peutz walks through the Markazi refugee camp in Djibouti. Nadia Benchallal/photographer

Photographs and insights from a refugee camp in Djibouti —by a professional photographer, Yemenis who live there, NYU Abu Dhabi students, and their professor — will come together in February in twin exhibitions in New York and Abu Dhabi.

Nathalie Peutz, anthropologist and assistant professor of Arab Crossroads Studies at NYUAD, said the material adds up to “a conversation … among refugees, a photographer, an anthropologist, and a range of students, about the condition of becoming a permanent refugee today.”

Djibouti, population 950,000 and one of the poorest Arab states, is in the Horn of Africa, just 20 miles across the Bab al-Mandab strait from Yemen, where civil war began in 2015. There are now roughly 4,500 registered Yemeni refugees in the country, divided between Djibouti city and a camp called Markazi, which hosts some 1,200 refugees. “As a poor country, Djibouti has been very generous,” the professor noted.

Peutz’s previous research has focused on Socotra, an Arabian Sea archipelago that belongs to Yemen but is 236 miles offshore. When the conflict interrupted her access to Socotra, Peutz shifted her field work to Djibouti. “Markazi means ‘center’, she said, “and it does feel like a center … containing  people from all over Yemen. I’ve been spending time there with a French-Algerian photographer, Nadia Benchallal … as a collaborative project this has taken on a life of its own.”


The refugees feel forgotten and overlooked, frustrated that they can’t return home or be resettled. But the fact that their photographs can travel means something."

Nathalie Peutz, professor of Arab Crossroads Studies
Peutz sits down with several male Yemeni refugees to talk about their experiences. Nadia Benchallal/photographer

In Markazi, Benchallal has taken both black-and-white photos of everyday life and color family portraits. And on an earlier trip, Peutz and Benchallal gave cameras to 10 Markazi residents.

The photographs destined for the exhibition, taken by Benchallal as well as the camp residents, Peutz said, “are not just snapshots of refugees looking miserable. Nadia portrays them with dignity, as they want to appear.”

“The refugees feel forgotten and overlooked, frustrated that they can’t return home or be resettled. But the fact that their photographs can travel means something. They’re very keen for these exhibitions to happen.”

Texts for the exhibitions will come from Peutz herself, and from the 15 NYUAD students has taken to Markazi for January Term.

The short, intensive J-Term course — called The Other Crisis: Migration and Displacement Across the Red Sea — begins with three classroom days in Abu Dhabi, followed by 10 days in Djibouti. At Markazi “they’ll spend their mornings shadowing NGO workers; then we’ll have lunch and a conventional seminar, discussing assigned readings. Afternoons, at the camp, they’ll carry out their own projects … such as, volunteer teaching of English, and science experiments with household materials we’ll bring with us.”

Peutz takes notes during her field studies at the refugee camp. Nadia Benchallal/photographer

Meanwhile “the students will be writing journal entries each day, creating their own verbal photographs. Their final assignment is to select the most compelling ones” for the February exhibit.

All in all it’s an unusual style of learning — except at NYUAD. The university’s Office of Global Education, Peutz explained, is “fantastic” in creating conditions, and finding funds, for what are called regional seminars, outside the classroom. She herself has taken previous classes to Oman and Uganda. It’s not mere tourism: “The key is to connect it with the course material.

“You can see how this has changed my own research, too. When I was living as an anthropologist in Socotra, my research was more or less solitary. But now at NYUAD, the fact that all this is possible, that I can take students with me, has extended my research beyond these boundaries in ways I hadn’t even thought possible before.”

In New York, the exhibition, at 19 Washington Square North, opens February 4 and runs until May 30.

In Abu Dhabi, the exhibition, in the Project Space on the Saadiyat Island campus, opens February 4 and runs to February 28.