A 9-year-old girl sleeps in a wooden cradle in a refugee camp. A girl named Lamar curls up in a blanket on the forest floor. A 7-year-old boy lies face down, a backpack for a pillow.
In many of these photographs — part of an exhibition called “Where the Children Sleep,” opening Saturday at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis — the refugees’ eyes are closed, their faces vulnerable. At other times, Swedish photojournalist Magnus Wennman captures their eyes open.
Walaa, 5, looks straight into the camera, the light illuminating a tear. She never used to cry in her room in Aleppo, she told the journalists. But in a refugee camp in Lebanon, “she cries every night.”
Wennman began taking these portraits to help people better understand the conflict in Syria and the families fleeing it. By focusing on where children sleep — on cardboard, on concrete, in hospital beds — he hoped to cut through the confusing nature of the civil war, showing how it affects the youngest and most vulnerable.
“You want people to feel it can be any child,” Wennman said by phone. “It could be my child. No matter who your parents are fighting for, or not fighting for, these children are always the most innocent.”
His photos are launching a yearlong theme of migration, identity and belonging at the Swedish Institute. The exhibit, paired with others there, ties the stories of 19th-century immigrants to those of today.
“We didn’t want to come soft at it,” said Scott Pollock, director of exhibitions, collections and programs.
This project helps “challenge our assumptions about what Swedish Americans’ experiences were like 100 years ago and say, ‘Is there anything that’s similar? Is there anything that’s different here?’
“And then people can walk away and make their own decisions about what they should do or shouldn’t do for the country and the world.”
Wennman, who has won two World Press Photo awards, came up with the idea for the photo series a few years back. He and his editors at the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet were discussing how to cover the four-year anniversary of the conflict in Syria.
“It was a conflict that not many people cared about,” he said, “so we tried to find new ways to tell the story.”
Alongside a reporter, he trekked to refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, trips that informed a series of articles published in 2015.
Later, while reporting other stories, Wennman photographed children in Serbia, Hungary and Greece. He found families trying to flee violence, cross borders, find shelter. He met children struggling to fall asleep at night, tormented by memories that had morphed into nightmares.
“There’s a difference between closing your eyes and sleeping, as six-year-old Gulistan knows,” one photograph’s caption reads. “She prefers to shut her eyes and just pretend, because every time she really falls asleep, the nightmares start again.”
Quickly, the photographs became an exhibition, first shown at Fotografiska, a contemporary photography center in Stockholm, then at key spots across the world, including the United Nations. They then became a book, its proceeds passed onto the U.N. Refugee Agency.
“Sometimes you feel like you do something that matters more than other things,” Wennman said. “This was one of those. From the beginning, I felt it was a good idea, and along the way, I realized it was a really good way to tell this complicated situation in a quite simple way.”
2 million refugee children
The number of Syrian refugees rose to 4.8 million in late 2016, according to the Refugee Agency — nearly half of them children. Many refugees have landed in Turkey, which has counted 2.8 million of the total.
“None of us can even digest a number like 4 million people, or 2 million refugee children,” said Larry Yungk, senior resettlement officer for the agency’s regional office in Washington, D.C.
Wennman’s photographs turn abstract numbers into powerful, personal stories, he continued. “You get much more of a sense of who they are, and why they need the help of the international community.”
Sweden and Minnesota have strong histories of welcoming refugees, Yungk said.
Over the past decade, Minnesota has resettled about 20,500 refugees from around the world, according to the U.S. State Department. About 7,500 of them were from Somalia, the biggest number of Somali refugees resettled in any state.
About 18,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the United States since the civil war broke out in 2011. Just 35 have landed in Minnesota.
The Swedish Institute’s Pollock first saw “Where the Children Sleep” in Stockholm during a scouting trip in 2015. By chance, he and the institute’s president, Bruce Karstadt, were headed to lunch when they walked into a gallery where the images were being shown.
“I walked out in tears, literally,” Pollock said.
While in Sweden, the pair had witnessed some of the flow of new immigrants to the country, including Syrian families arriving on trains. “It was just everywhere,” he said.
The Minneapolis nonprofit has gotten some criticism for focusing on today’s refugees, Pollock said, from “people who maybe want to put our work in the past.” But this new round of exhibitions tells contemporary stories — including a video project that features recent immigrants from Nordic countries.
“I really think we can create a culture of empathy through projects like this,” Pollock said.
Reporting in countries bordering Syria, Wennman sometimes met children the same age as his son, who is 6.
The children miss the dolls and toy trains they left in Syria. A 5-year-old girl named Tamam is “scared of her pillow,” according to the caption, because the air raids on her hometown of Homs usually took place at night. Wennman found himself imagining his son in the same situations, which “makes it really, really difficult.”
Wennman decided to become a photographer as a teen. After growing up painting and drawing, he was 16 when he “finally found a camera,” he said. “I knew right away. It was never really a question.” He started working for a Swedish newspaper, Dala-Demokraten, when he was 17.
Since then, he has worked in more than 70 countries. Recently, he was in northern Iraq, near Mosul, where he captured an image of a wounded 12-year-old girl being carried into a field hospital. She looks straight at the camera, fear in her eyes.
Having a child has made the photojournalist more careful on assignments in dangerous areas, Wennman said. It also has given him a new outlook on his work.
“I don’t know if I would have done this project had I not had a child,” he said. “Probably not.”