It was a bright Calais morning when Ammar Raad, a refugee, and Olivier Kugler, an artist from Germany, first met inside a makeshift shack in April 2016.
“It was cold when we met. I know we were using the heater,” recalls Raad, a Syrian who was 24 when the war started in his home. Kugler later drew a picture of Raad just as he had found him, sitting on the floor beside the heater and a pile of plastic cups, his green eyes leaping from the image. Now the striking drawing forms part of an exhibition opening this weekend in London, and Raad is there to see it in person. Later that year, after more than 300 failed attempts, Raad managed to reach the UK by hiding in a suitcase in the luggage hold of a bus. Last week, as the two men were reunited for the start of the art show, Kugler joked he could tell it was Raad by the green eyes smiling out at him from under a baseball cap. “I recognised you in spite of the new beard,” said the artist.
The acclaimed images of refugees that Kugler made later – based on their conversations and on the photographs he takes of the refugees’ long journeys from Syria across Europe – will form a key part of the exhibition now on at the House of Illustration in King’s Cross.
When war broke out Raad was a student living in al-Qusayr, a city of around 100,000 inhabitants just outside Homs. There is nothing there now, Raad says, and he has no desire to see it again. “It has been empty since 2013. My father went there two days ago because the new mayor wants to rebuild the city and he wants to make a park. My father said there is nothing there now.”
Now, as a 31-year-old student of international relations at London Metropolitan University and with an improving grip on the language, Raad is beginning to feel at home. “I have started thinking in English in the last few weeks,” he said. “I don’t call my mum that often and I found I started to text her in English. And I am even dreaming in English now. I never used to dream at all.”
The two friends he shared his small shelter with in France are now both in Britain: one in Cardiff and one in Portsmouth. “I know one of them paid a smuggler a lot of money to get here, the other one too probably.” Raad rarely speaks to them.
“I don’t speak to many Syrians now actually,” he adds. Kugler, whose award-winning cartoons depict the words and sights of refugee life, remembers how difficult it was to find someone to interview in the Calais migrant camp. “It was very hard to speak to people, compared with when I was with travelling with Médecins Sans Frontières, the charity, and had translators. I had the impression people in the camp weren’t very interested in talking to me.” When he knocked on the shack door back then, he thinks he was told to come back later because the men inside were asleep. “We had to try to get to Britain during the night. There was only a chance when it was dark,” Raad explains. “We were really tired and we wanted to tidy up a bit too.”
“I’m sorry,” said Kugler.
“In fact, we enjoyed talking later,” said Raad. “When you are in the camp it is very boring and you want to talk to new people. It is a connection with the world out there.” Raad’s own final journey to Britain eventually came after 11 months spent at the Calais encampment. When he travelled to see a friend in Paris, he spotted a bus service to England and hatched the plan to hide himself in the hold. Amazingly, it worked on only the second attempt.
“The first time the bag broke. But the next time I stayed curled up for nine hours. I could breathe because I could open the case a little. Normally no one gets in like that because they have dogs checking every bag. I was just lucky. It was raining and it wasn’t a time when many trains were going through.”
When Raad arrived he was sent to Cardiff first, where he enrolled for English courses. A period of sickness followed. Raad said he was in bed for a month and he believes the repeated exposure to tear-gas attacks and the bad conditions in the camp took a belated toll on his health. He lost hair and his breathing has been affected.
When his papers confirming his status as a refugee came through, he moved to London. He chose England because his twin brother, Emad, was already living in Newcastle, and he chose to study international relations because of an early love of the maps and atlases his father used to give him to look at and his interest in the history of different countries. Although Kugler does use photography initially, the work of illustrators is particular suited to refugee coverage, according to Katie Nairne, the House of Illustration’s curator, because they can spend longer periods of time observing their subjects in situations where photography may be banned, or seem intrusive.
“The work illustrators have created in response to, or as a result of, the personal experiences of refugees has been vital in telling the stories of those who must leave their homes to seek safety,” said Nairne.
Also in the show is Iranian artist Majid Adin’s award-winning animation for Elton John’s Rocket Man, which draws on his own journey to Britain. Adin was imprisoned in Iran for his political works and then smuggled to London inside a refrigerator. Palestinian-Syrian Mahmoud Salameh’s cartoons were inspired by 17 months spent in an Australian detention centre, while British Libyan Asia Alfasi’s manga work explores some of the issues refugees face.
Kugler’s digital portrait of Raad in Calais hangs next to his work showing refugees arriving on the Greek island of Kos and near to the graphic novel made by Kate Evans to recount her experience of volunteering in the Calais camp.