On Saturday, November 5th, 2022, the Tigrayan-Canadian community in Toronto organized a photo exhibition titled Nayna – a Tigrayan word meaning “ours”. This photo exhibition featured the stories of Tigrayan-Canadians affected by the ongoing genocidal war on Tigray.
The war, which was officially declared on November 4, 2020, has killed an estimated 600,000 people, displaced over 2 million, and produced a man-made famine that threatens the lives of millions of people in Tigray. A defining feature of the war has been the total communication blockade imposed by the Ethiopian government. This blockade has prevented Tigrayans across the world from contacting their families who are living under siege in Tigray.
Spearheaded by Tigray Advocacy Canada, an advocacy organization based in Toronto, the November 5 exhibition highlighted the multifaceted challenges Tigrayan-Canadians have been navigating in the wake of the war. The photographs, captured by local photographer Tony Tones, reflect the agony, uncertainty, and turmoil of Tigrayan-Canadians over the past two years. Many have been victims of ethnic profiling, most have lost family members in Tigray, and all have been prevented from contacting their families in the region. Transcribed interviews shed light on the specific experiences of each of the people interviewed, highlighting the heartbreaking ways the war continues to affect people.
Envisioned as a creative method to raise awareness about the war, the photo exhibition provided Tigrayan-Canadians the opportunity to share their stories with the broader Canadian public. The event was attended by hundreds of people and most Canadians who attended the photo exhibit were shocked to learn about the war. Most noted that they had not heard about the war on Tigray prior to the exhibit, which underscores the insufficiency of the Canadian media’s coverage of the war. Attracting journalists, artists, and Canadians who had previously never heard about Tigray, the exhibition was successful in bringing the stories of Tigrayan-Canadians to the public.
Encouraged by the success of this event, the organizers are currently working on a larger photo exhibition, which will be held in the coming months.
Excerpts from the stories shared by those photographed:
Amina: “We [Tigrayan-Canadians] are Canadians too … and we are living in agony and stress. For two years we haven’t been able to hear our families’ voices. Our people are perishing, for nothing. Civilians are dying in their homes, this isn’t war, this is genocide. We need help. We need this war to end.”
Eyob (Tigrayan refugee, describing conditions in Ethiopia): “There was so much suspicion, everyone was watching us. Tigrayans couldn’t leave the country. We were being returned from the airport even though we had valid travel documents. This happened to me twice, despite the fact that I had my visa and ticket already. Even travelling inside Ethiopia was stressful. At any point, police could stop you and demand to see your ID. If you have a Tigrayan name, they will interrogate you, and they won’t let you pass until you bribe them”.
John: “this is not a political issue. This is a humanitarian issue. As an immigrant in this country, I hold Canada with so much affection. It’s home to such a diverse and multicultural population; it welcomes refugees. With this history of humanity, I ask, why have Canadians ignored the suffering in Tigray? Why have Canadians refused to condemn the war in Tigray in the way they condemn what’s happening in Ukraine? This isn’t about race or politics; this is about humanity”.
Abel: “I want Canadians to know that they shouldn’t contribute a single cent towards those perpetrating genocide. This is a clear case of genocide, we don’t need to wait until all 6 million people are dead. I want the Canadian government to impose sanctions and an arms embargo to limit the Ethiopian government’s spending on military logistics. Canada should at least pressure the Ethiopian government to open a humanitarian corridor”.
Danayt: “They [Ethiopian and Eritrean forces] set out to eliminate everything about Tigray. Sometimes I fear that they are achieving just that. All our conversations about Tigray are about death, starvation, and suffering. But I want Canadians to know that the story of Tigray is so much more than that. I want them to understand the people; how hard they worked to change their land and improve their home. How proud they are of their history, their culture, and their accomplishments. How much love and respect they have for themselves. Every time I went back, I saw little bits of change that the people worked incredibly hard to bring about. People had hope in their future in Tigray. I want Canadians to know the true Tigray we are fighting for. That’s what I fight for.”