Striking portraits celebrate individuality of refugee women

For Samar, 24, life has all been about survival.

She was still a teenager seven years ago when, with the war in Syria raging, she decided to flee her country in the hope of a better future.

She first sought refuge in Lebanon, then in Egypt and Turkey, before embarking on a dangerous sea journey on a rainy February night four years ago when she boarded a boat packed with children in a bid to reach Greece’s shores.

“I wanted a better life and more freedom,” says Samar, one of the more than 1.2 million people escaping conflict, hardship and persecution to have arrived in Europe via Greece over the past five years. But the shutting down of the Balkan borders and an EU-Turkey agreement have since trapped more than 100,000 people in Greece, with most languishing in poor living conditions.

Samar is one of several women to be featured in Chrysalis, a striking portrait series by Greek visual artist and photographer Olga Stefatou that celebrates the individuality of female refugees and asylum seekers in Greece.

In Chrysalis, Stefatou photographs women from Syria, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan inside a neoclassical building in Greece’s capital, Athens. Clad in golden costumes made from emergency blankets, the women recount their distinct experiences, perilous journeys and aspirations for the future.

“From the start, it was crucial for me that the women are active participants in the process and express their own individuality, which is often either hidden behind the ‘refugee’ label or oppressed due to cultural factors,” Stefatou says.

Her series of portraits and accompanying texts will be exhibited at the Fire Station contemporary art space in Qatar’s capital, Doha, from February 12 to 28, before being shown at Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum as part of the Sanctuary exhibition running from March 19 to August 23.

Al Jazeera spoke to Stefatou about Chrysalis, the idea behind it and its reception.

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