Cubes give new dimension to refugee stories in Croatia

Refugees see themselves multiplied by four in an imaginative open-air photo exhibition in the heart of Zagreb

Kafia, an Iraqi refugee, stands beside her larger-than-life portrait in front of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb © UNHCR/Ante Delač

Safaa from Syria studies four large portraits of herself, displayed on a cube in a public square in Zagreb, and beams with delight.

“I am surprised at how good my pictures are,” she says. “I am proud to be in this exhibition. I would not have done it otherwise.”


Safaa, 53, a widow with three sons, originally from Aleppo, is one of four refugees featured in an outdoor exhibition called “Oni” (“They), running in conjunction with Zagreb’s annual film “Festival of Tolerance”.   4x4x4x4 — four Croatian photographers each took portraits of four refugees and the pictures occupy the four sides of cubes in four squares in the city centre.

The project is led by the Festival of Tolerance (FOT), with backing from the city of Zagreb, UNHCR and its partner, the Jesuit Refugee Service. The man who came up with the cube concept was Hrvoje Pukšec, FOT’s Head of Film.


Pedestrians pass a cube portraying Tony, a Syrian refugee, in front of Zagreb's Central Railway Station © UNHCR/Andrea Kaštelan


Safaa in front of her cube on Petar Preradovic Square (known locally as "Flower Square") © UNHCR/Ante Delač


Photographer Stanko Herceg in front of the portrait he took of Tony, a Syrian refugee © UNHCR/Andrea Kaštelan

“The exhibition is called ‘They’ because it is about the way we deal with ‘others’. Often, we do not want to let them into our lives,” he says. “In the first week, the cubes were encircled with fences. When the film festival opened, we took the fences down.”

Now passersby can get even closer to the cubes and not only see the photos but read short passages of text that hint at the experiences of the people portrayed.

Safaa is transfixed by her cube on Petar Preradović Square. On the cube, she says somewhat enigmatically: “I have lost my husband but I managed to save my sons.”

She tells how she fled war-torn Aleppo after her husband died and came to Croatia because she had a brother already living in Zagreb. A former architect, Safaa is now retraining to care for the elderly. But it is her sons who give her real purpose.

“Hands show what a person has been through in life”

“My life is my boys,” she says, adding that her youngest, Ahmed, 14, has achieved the highest marks in Croatian.

The longer you look at the cubes, the more you see. Photographer Mare Milin has taken introductory pictures of the refugees. On two other sides of the cubes, Ivan Posavec and Ana Opalić have illustrated the refugees’ memories and present-day realities.

On the fourth side of each cube, photographer Stanko Herceg has focused on the refugees’ hands as a way of conveying their emotions.

“Hands show what a person has been through in life,” says Stanko, who was a TV reporter during Croatia’s own war in the 1990s and now  teaches camera work at Zagreb’s Academy of Dramatic Arts.

On the main Ban Josip Jelačić Square, the youngest refugee in the exhibition, nine-year-old Mehdi from Iran, looks out from Stanko’s portrait, a red cap on his head, his hand placed rather defensively across his chest, a sad look in his big, brown eyes.

“I know that kid!” exclaims a Croatian mother passing by. “He goes to school with my daughter.”

“It’s kinda sad ’cos of their situation,” says another passerby, Damjan, 21, a student of criminology.


Kafia, an Iraqi refugee, stands beside her cube in front of the National Theatre © UNHCR/Ante Delač


Tony, a refugee from Syria, stands beside his cube in front of the Central Railway Station © UNHCR/Ante Delač


Passersby in front of Tony's cube © UNHCR/Andrea Kaštelan

The cubes have been thoughtfully placed in locations that reflect the interests or characters of the refugees.

Tony, 31, from Homs in Syria, sees himself on a cube opposite the railway station, the setting intended to suggest he is an active young guy. “To be honest, it’s a bit weird to be looking at myself in a public place but I don’t regret taking this step,” he says.

Kafia, 63, from Iraq, cries when she sees her cube in position outside the National Theatre, reflecting her aspiration to be an actress, with one role already behind her.

Was she an actress back in Baghdad? “No,” she says, “I was a housewife but here in Croatia, someone offered me a part in a film about refugees and I played a mother, cooking for her kids. I like adventure. I will try any new role in life.

“There are two stages of the journey: I will survive and I will not survive.”

Kafia, a widow, now lives in Zagreb. She has a son in Austria whom fortunately she can visit, as she has refugee status in Croatia and the right to travel. Her daughter and granddaughter are still in the asylum process in Croatia. They are staying in the reception centre for asylum seekers until their refugee claim is assessed, when hopefully they would move in with Kafia.

Back in Syria, Tony studied agronomy but war got in the way of a career in his chosen field. He came to Europe in 2015.

On his cube, Tony, who is still single, says: “There are two stages of the journey: I will survive and I will not survive.”

“When was I sure I would survive? When I set off, I was so confident of everything then,” he says.

“When did I feel I might not survive? When things became complicated in Europe…” Until he was granted protection in Croatia, he worried about what would happen to him.

The experience of searching for a place that would accept him has left him feeling shaky, even now. “I lost everything once. I hope it will never happen to me again,” he says.

But Tony, who works as a cook and interpreter, is starting to have optimism in Croatia. “The best things are the people and nature,” he says, adding that one day he may pick up the threads of his education and do something connected with his love of farming.