Life Through a Lens
In Syria, they witnessed humanity at its worst. Now, through photography, young refugees look at their world with fresh eyes.
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More than half of the 3 million people driven into exile by the conflict in Syria are children. Haunted by violence and loss, they have also been deprived of a voice.
At Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, a UNHCR workshop entitled “Do You See What I See” has been giving young refugees the chance to explore their world through photography and share it with others. Equipped with digital cameras and the boundless energy of youth, they have been producing images that reveal the fears and hopes, loss and longing of their lives in exile.
Photojournalist and workshop leader Brendan Bannon says at the heart of the project are stories, conjured from memory or imagination and recorded in pictures and captions. Five of the students share their stories here, providing a glimpse of the world as seen through their eyes.
Alaa, 14, and her family left Syria when their home in Dara’a came under attack during the night. They had to leave everything behind when they fled. “If I could bring anything from home I would bring my sister. She’s still in Syria,” she says.
Unlike her other relatives, who crack jokes and talk loudly across one another, when Alaa speaks it is barely more than a whisper. “Although I’m shy, I had no problem showing my work and talking about it in class,” she says. “We all learned to look after each other.”
Her favourite assignment is taking portraits. “I liked my self-portrait best, because it was beautiful,” she says with a smile. If she could photograph anything, it would be her house in Syria and the beautiful countryside surrounding it. “I can still remember the trees and the smell of the soil.”
Mohammed Khalid, 15, says life was happy in his village in Dara’a before the fighting began. “We had a wonderful life there, but once the war started it all vanished.”
Back in Syria, he used to go to school, but now he helps the family by working in his uncle’s shop in the camp’s busy thoroughfare selling strollers and other baby products. “This is my life in Za’atari.”
Like many boys his age in the camp, he’s mad about soccer. Since the workshop, he’s more often found snapping photos from the sidelines than sliding into tackles. “I want to be a professional sports photographer, but it’s quite tricky,” he admits.
Rhagda, 14, left Damascus with her parents and five sisters when the airstrikes and bombing became unbearable. In class, the workshop leader asked her why she took a photo of a knife covered in tomato ketchup. “Because I saw my uncle killed in front of me, and there was lots of blood,” she told him.
Her mother says life in their part of the camp changed when Rhagda and her sister Randa joined the workshop. “When they came home they took over the place,” she explains. “They got everyone involved, the whole family and all their friends.”
“We stopped doing housework and just took photos,” Rhagda says. She was asked to take a photo of what she wants to be in the future, so she sat the neighbourhood kids in rows and stood in front of them with a book. “I decided to show myself as a teacher, but mainly because I couldn’t think of how to show myself as a lawyer.”
Back in Syria, Randa, now 12, loved going outside and playing with her friends. “We used to be outside all the time, but here I feel like I’m imprisoned in the house.” She says taking the course has helped her make new friends and learn new things – not just photography, but also how to put her ideas into practice.
She and her sisters all go to school in the camp, but there are usually 80 or 90 students in her class, which makes it hard to learn. “My school in Syria was much better,” she says. “The teachers were nice and they took care of us.”
Asked why learning is so important to her, she thinks for a few seconds and says: “Because if we don’t learn, how are we going to teach our kids and future generations?”
Abdalghafar, 15, has been living in Za’atari for a year now. He says the camp is ugly compared with their village back home, but some things are better. “The biggest thing you lost in Syria was sleeping peacefully, because you were always afraid. We sleep better here.”
He loves taking photos of his family, especially his youngest sister, Maya, who cries when he leaves the house. He would like to become a journalist and take his camera back to Syria. “I would take pictures of the agony and suffering of people, for the whole world to see what is happening there.”
See photographs by taken by these and other young refugees at Do You See What I See?