CNN Photos

The faces of resilient refugees

In one image, a child looks blankly at a small camera taking his picture. In another, a woman holds her infant. She stares downward, the focus of her eyes carrying a weight of sadness and contemplation.

Luca Catalano Gonzaga sees something else as well: resilience.

“I am attracted by the resilience of people in desperate situations,” the Italian photographer said in an e-mail interview.

Catalano Gonzaga shot these pictures in 2011 while following the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The group’s work was being funded by the Nando Peretti Foundation, a group that had also supported a previous project of Catalano Gonzaga’s called Child Survival in Climate Change.

The Somalis had come to the Dadaab camp in Kenya because of political instability and famine in their home country. Catalano Gonzaga remembers them as quiet and frightened, somewhat disoriented.

They had marched for days through the Horn of Africa in the hot sun, and they longed for food and medical care. The ordeal had prematurely aged many. The mothers, with their young children, might have been in their early 20s, but they looked much older.

And yet Catalano Gonzaga sees a positive story of people willing to sacrifice for a new life rather than remain in their troubled homeland. Seeing the positive is a theme in his work, which also includes projects in Rwanda, Mauritania and Bangladesh.

“I like to tell success stories when possible and not simply denounce the plight of refugees,” he said. “I saw small communities defend themselves and their communities from multinationals that they felt threatened them. I saw people stand up for their principles and not pursue profit at any cost and the law of the strong.”

It’s a long way from his earlier life in advertising and marketing, a career in which he was paid to glorify the glamorous and keep the wheels of commerce moving.

He has no regrets, he says.

“I always found it unacceptable that a few hours away by plane from my home, millions of people live in extreme poverty and that children the age of my own children don’t have the chance to go to school and die from preventable diseases,” he said.

He says it has been years since the news media was focused on the plight of Somali refugees. The news has moved on, he says, but the refugees remain. Today there are still more than 300,000 refugees in the Dadaab camp, according to the United Nations.

But as much as he hopes the photos revive interest, he also hopes they show the refugees’ spirit — and those of others caught in dire situations.

“I hope to transmit the strength of their feelings and sentiments and create empathy for those are forced to flee from their homes to save themselves from man-made and natural disasters,” he said.

“I live under the presumption that, if there were more solidarity and kindness in the world, we would all be better off for it.”

- Todd Leopold, CNN