What Refugee Women Teach Us About Resilience

Displaced Iraqi women from the Yazidi community, who fled violence between Islamic State (IS) group jihadists and Peshmerga f
Displaced Iraqi women from the Yazidi community, who fled violence between Islamic State (IS) group jihadists and Peshmerga fighters in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, gather around their tents at a refugee camp set up on Mount Sinjar on January 15, 2015. IS group has targeted Yazidis and other minorities in northern Iraq in a campaign that rights group Amnesty International said in a report amounted to ethnic cleansing, murdering civilians and enslaving others for a fate that some captives consider worse than death. IS militants have overrun swathes of Iraq since June 2014, declared a cross-border caliphate also encompassing parts of neighbouring Syria and carried out a litany of abuses in both countries. AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

Last September I brought my film Coral the Ocean Dome to Tianjin, this year in Davos I am presenting "Evolution of Fearlessness" an immersive, interactive artwork that responds to touch.

To experience the work you first read the stories of 10 women who are primarily political refugees now residing in Australia. The stories of these women verge from the horrendous to the terribly sad. Most have experienced extreme acts of violence and worse. But the work is not about what has happened to the women, it is about who they have become. After reading their stories the viewer approaches a doorway in a darkened room and places a hand on the glass portal. This action causes the activation of a life-sized video of one of the women who steps forward and places her hand on your hand. The work creates a moment of video touch. What you experience from looking into these women's eyes is not their devastation, but rather and perhaps surprisingly, their love.

The search for fearless women

When I went looking for the women to film for the work, I knew of one woman, a friend, with the quality that, for the sake of the work, I called "fearlessness" but that I also sometimes referred to as "resilience." Neither of these words completely encompasses what I found, but I have never found the right word for the quality I recognize in all these women. I sometimes used to refer to resilience in coral as a metaphor to help me explain what I was looking for, so let me say what I mean by that.

Some coral has the ability to absorb light at one wavelength and to re-emit it at another. This form of channeling light is called coral fluorescence. The ability for some corals to fluoresce is seen as one way they protect themselves from increasing exposure to light and heat. Not all corals fluoresce but it appears that those that are able to are better surviving the bleaching events that lead to mass coral death. Bleaching happens when coral becomes stressed. Fluorescing corals absorb what is stressful, the increased light, and they transform it. They channel the light into a different wavelength and they re-emit it as a fluorescing color. In other words, they shine.

That was my metaphor for the women I was seeking in the "Evolution of Fearlessness". Not just women who had experienced extreme trauma but those who had somehow managed to transform that trauma. I presumed that to be a rare quality but I also knew that I had seen it. What I recognize now in the women I filmed is what I call a heightened humanity. Their exposure to the worst in human beings has resulted somehow in a more profound love of humanity coupled with a strong sense of the communal nature of human beings. Each of them has a devotion to the human family, and I am not using that phrase lightly. I mean they are devoted to its betterment and where it is weak or fragile, they try to strengthen it. That is the common trait among them.

Transforming the negative into something positive

In that way their stories are interchangeable. Which is why they can operate as they do in the artwork -- one woman's story can be aptly represented by another woman's video presence. This is because the endings, not just the beginnings, of their stories are all versions of the same, with differences in detail but not in essence.

I don't include that detail in the artwork but if I were to give you those endings this is what they would say:

"Now she works caring for homeless men, she assists jobless immigrants, she helps torture survivors. Now she works with children who have cancer, she fashions toys for them, she sits with the newly imprisoned, the unemployed, she works with the mentally ill. Most simply, every one of the women you see in the work has built a life that allows them to help those around them who are suffering. In this way they have all been on a similar trajectory that seems to say one thing to me: they are not afraid of the pain in others."

I have wondered about that. It can't be an accident that these women who have survived so much are spending their lives in what we might think of as extremely challenging environments. Maybe they can't be shocked more than they have been by what humans can do to one another and that perspective allows them to be present to life's hard struggles. The recovery from their trauma seems to have given them the strength to look all of life in the eyes. That is what I found, though it was not what I was looking for. These women, who were not hard to find, haven't shielded themselves from the worst life can bring, they have no need to. They have not disconnected from what happened to them, rather they have somehow connected through it to those around them who are in need or in pain. But, here's the thing, where I saw pain, they just saw people. I was not searching for women whose lives were spent mending the fabric of humanity. I was searching for women who had built resilience after trauma. But when I found one, I found the other.

Strength in the face of adversity

In the UK a few years ago I did a residency at a glass center and there I spent time with fuse glass workers whose whole lives, since apprenticeship, were spent working with glass. I was making needles out of borosilicate glass, the kind of glass we use for fiber-optic cables because of its ability to refract light so powerfully that the glass itself seems to shine with the smallest amount of light. The glass rods we were working with had to be heated in the naked flame and then stretched to a sharp point so they could pierce fabric. Once this was done they looked perfect to me but the finished needles then had to be put back inside a furnace to be reheated. When I asked why this second exposure to the furnace had to happen one of the glassworkers explained: "We have really stressed the glass by what we have done to it, how we have changed its shape. We have put huge pressure on it and the danger is that the slightest thing now might cause it to shatter. Stress weakens the whole." He took me to another room to put on special goggles and there I could see the nature of the stress in the glass in the form of thin black lines -- it had changed the very structure of the glass. "We can't see stress normally," he said. "But it has made the structure weak, so even with a small amount of damage, the needle will shatter. We have to put it back into the furnace where it is exposed to more heat and it will become strong again."

I wonder about the women from "Evolution of Fearlessness" and the lives they have all thrown themselves into. None of these women are fragile. Given what they've been through, that is what is remarkable about them and that is why they are in the artwork. I hope just by experiencing them in this way some of what they have forged in themselves might be shared with us, because there is wisdom in it. Instinctively they knew what the glass artists told me. They have made themselves strong within the furnace of humanity. After all that has happened to them they are not weakened; in fact, like the coral, they shine. In a time of fear, they are my antidote.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The World Economic Forum to mark the Forum's Annual Meeting 2015 (in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, Jan. 21-24). Read all the posts in the series here.