Martin Thaulow fell in love with a refugee and found his path between war zones and refugee camps.

By Anduena Hajdari // header captured by Mathias F. Bickersteth 

I met with Martin at the Copenhagen Airport. He was on his way to Jordan to photograph women who mastered skills traditionally intended for men. As a photographer and the founder of Refugee.Today he travels the world and visually communicates realities unknown to most through his lens. Martin’s emotions light the fire, which gives him the courage to embrace catastrophe and capture its beauty. 

There is a Danish island called Bornholm, a real pearl placed far away from the rest of Denmark, enriched with rocky shores and colourful hobbit looking houses, shielded from war and terror. Martin Thaulow has lived a basic Danish life with his now ex-wife and 3 children. War was a concept he had absolutely no relations to. That is until the government opened a refugee camp on Bornholm in 2014, and a far-away war brought him love right to his doorstep.

The embodiment of running away from death and destruction crossed the Danish borders, and Martin found himself consumed by a feeling of hunger for something beyond any material substance. “I needed to start this journey where I could get to know these people who were fleeing,” he explains. “The whole world was talking about them, but I needed to get to know them personally,” he continues. Before the opening of the Red Cross refugee camp, the locals initiated activities that would be held to welcome the refugees and strengthen the bond between the Danes and the people who now walk around as living trauma vessels. But none of the activities where successful, since the locals never made a real effort to interact with the refugees.

Martin saw this as the opportunity of his life. He lived on the same island as people who had seen, heard and felt the real face of this world, and that “had to be my sign. The lack of interaction between the refugees and the locals was such a shame”, he says, “but that didn’t stop me from reaching out. I knew that this was something I couldn’t let go”. As soon as Martin was allowed to work with the island’s new residents, he took out his camera and started taking portraits of them one by one. Martin then gave each one of them their portrait on print.

Thomas by Martin Thaulow

Thomas fled Gambia because of his sexuality.

“The first refugees who opened their doors and spoke their truth were the Eritreans, who have been through the most bizarre torture,” Martin explains. Some of them had been thrown in wholes, dug deep into the ground, and spent days in unbearable heat. Others were hanged on trees with hands and the feet tied behind their back. They are made to lie on the ground, face down, or suspended in the air. Metal strings or plastic ropes are often used instead of rope. Victims are often beaten or kicked while being tied or suspended in this position. Testimonies reveal that milk or sugared water is sometimes poured over the body of the victims to attract insects so that they are bitten but cannot relieve their itch. 

The cultural difference between these refugees and the people of Bornholm seemed to be too vast to overcome for everyone else but Martin. “I felt a connection to them, and I can’t explain why,” he comments. In the process of getting to know the refugees, he sensed his hunger for justice, growing even more significant. A while after meeting the Eritreans, Denmark tried to issue a report which would cover the safe environment in Eritrea. This would permit Denmark to deport the Eritreans, but the ministry failed to document the safety of the refugees once they were deported.

“I felt sympathy for them, and at that moment, I knew that I felt a deeper connection to the refugees than to the Danish people around me,” he says. “Today, I know why I feel this way,” he continues. Martin’s personal struggles have gifted him with a full palette of empathic senses, which allow him to connect with humans on higher levels.

Somaye by Thomas Thaulow

Somaye is an Iranian Kurd of origin but born as a stateless in Camp Barike in Iraq as a second-generation refugee.

 

Kawa, Somayes father: “Living as refugees all of our lives has affected the girls. My daughters are not happy. Living in poverty and surrounded by war is all they have seen, and they don’t know of anything else.”

During this process, he and his now new wife, Rawan, fell more and more into the deep and still waters of love – disrupting the lives they both knew before meeting each other. “this is where my war started,” he laughs. Both Martin and Rawan had to sacrifice time, energy, and tears to plant the seed of their connection, leaving it to blossom.

“I met Rawan through the Danish Red Cross, where she worked as a translator,” he explains. Martin needed Rawan to help him with his documentary about refugees. In context, Rawan introduced Martin to a case about a young Syrian girl named Rojin who was about to be deported back to Bulgaria, where she had been living for a short period while fleeing to Denmark. “She would be separated from her family because she was over 18 years old,” Martin explains. “And I couldn’t let that happen.” The case made Martin decide not to be the “the fly on the wall,” which he would have to be if he had chosen to stick with the planned documentary. “This was stronger than I had expected,” he comments. “I needed to take action and prevent her from being deported, and this is where Rawan, and I started working together.” Martin decided to use the documentary’s research and name, Refugee.Today, as a platform where he and Rawan could share the stories of refugees for the whole world to read.

With the help of Refugee.Today Rojin managed to seek asylum in Germany. The organization has over 80.000 followers and supporters on Facebook, and Martin is working actively on pushing political boundaries and visually communicating the ugliest and most honest sides of wars all over the world. Rawan and her children still struggle with their time-limited residency. “It’s hard to fight this stubborn bureaucracy, but we have decided to live in the present and enjoy every day together as if there were no limit.

Rawan and Martin

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