GVSU alumnus shares stories through photographs

Shelby Pendowski

Due to political, racial and economic issues over the years, refugees from countries such Armenia, Palestine, Iraq and Jordan have fled to Syria for safety. To tell the tale of these refugees and the struggle that they are going through, Grand Valley State University alumnus Jared Kohler began snapping pictures of the conflict as a photojournalism project.

Kohler will present “The Syrian Refugee Journey” in the Pere Marquette Room in the GVSU Kirkhof Center at 1 p.m. on March 24.

“Photographs are important for many reasons, but one is because they are memories,” Kohler said. “They become a part of history. When a house is burning down, people usually run to recover their photo albums because, this way, they can keep from forgetting all the things they want to remember from their lives. Photographs help us not to forget – both happy things and horrible, tragic things.”

While at GVSU, Kohler studied the Arabic language and, through the Padnos Scholarship Fund, was able to study in the Middle East. This experience ignited his interest in the many civil war conflicts in the region that resulted in extreme amounts of refugees.

“For a year before I began photographing anything related to the Syrian crisis, I had already been living in Jordan,” Kohler said. “So when the opportunity to start photographing material related to the crisis came up, it was already an issue that I was very familiar with and had begun to become emotionally invested in.”

When staff at the GVSU Padnos International Center heard that Kohler would be lecturing at the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan’s Great Decisions Series in Grand Rapids, they took the opportunity to invite him to speak at his alma mater.

“We thought it would be a really good opportunity for GVSU students to hear about experiences of a fellow Laker who’s gone on to do really interesting and really great things with his career,” said Alissa Lane, GVSU Padnos International Center’s outreach coordinator. “I think it’ll also be a chance for people to, you know, understand the Syrian refugee crisis in a different way.

“A lot of what you are exposed to – like through the media – can be sensationalized, but I think to talk to someone who, you know, has been there and has lived in the Middle East for a long time…it’ll give them (those in attendance) a first hand look and an insight.”

The presentation will address the refugee crisis socially and politically through the photographs Kohler was able to snap while working in the region, and he hopes to share the impact that the situation made on him.

“Humanity – I always hope that my images can help to break down the sense of the ‘other,” Kohler said. “Most of the people caught in a conflict like the one in Syria are common, ordinary people. So many disastrous decisions that are made in the world today (on both an individual and also a government policy level) are based on reducing people in other contexts to something less than human and less than equal, at least subconsciously. I want to restore a bit of that awareness of shared global humanity.”

The event is free and open to the public. For more information on the event, contact the GVSU Padnos International Center at (616) 331-3898.