From there to here

Krak de Chevalier, Syria, 2007

Running photography workshops with Syrian and Lebanese youth in Beirut

When I was in Damascus studying Arabic in 2007, Syria was a safe place to live. It was a place where I didn’t fear walking alone at night. I once saw a street cleaner and a crowd of about ten people help an old man use an ATM machine for the first time — obviously sharing his pin code with the whole street in the process. Many many people invited me into their homes and showed me amazing generosity. People trusted each other.

It goes without saying that it’s not like that any more.

More than half the Syrian population have been forced from their homes due to the ongoing conflict which began in 2011. The number of people who have sought safety in neighbouring countries is approaching four million.

Well over a million have fled to Syria’s much smaller neighbour Lebanon, which now has more refugees per capita than any other country in the world. One in four people here is a refugee. The numbers are overwhelming for a small country with a population of just 4.5 million, itself still struggling with the legacy of a long and devastating civil war.

Over half of the refugees are children. The vast majority are not in school — in contrast to their lives in Syria, where there were very high school enrollment rates pre-conflict. Most of these kids have heard the sound of bombs and witnessed violence; all have experienced the disruption of their regular childhoods, the loss of their homes, and sometimes of loved ones.

Here in Lebanon they’re coping with high levels of exclusion from school and services, and often severe poverty. This is actually not so different from many disadvantaged Lebanese youth.

Working with children in Beirut with Christian Aid

Psycho-social exercise, Beirut 2015

Since the start of 2015, I’ve been working with Syrian and Lebanese kids aged 11 to 17, who are all involved in a ‘psycho social’ project run by Lebanese organisation Mouvement Social, which is supported by Christian Aid. Psycho-social work involves techniques drawn from art and drama therapy as well as counselling, and aims to help young people to gain confidence, overcome personal issues, and to build relationships with others. Working with Syrians and Lebanese together recognises the needs of both, while helping to build relationships between the two communities.

I’ve been working intensively with 12 of the kids, giving them cameras and photography training and mentoring. The idea is for photography to become another tool in the psycho-social workbox — another medium through which the children can express themselves, talk about the issues affecting them, and thereby build confidence in themselves and interaction with others.

I have been absolutely stunned by what the kids have already been coming out with after just a couple of sessions.

Not only are they great photographers, but the pictures offer a glimpse into their world. In many ways they’re so far from the average UK teenager, and some of the pictures and stories reflect that; siblings born in the midst of war; bullet-ridden buildings; digging out caves to act as bomb shelters. Yet in other ways they are so similar; they like drawing and toys and stationary, they chat on WhatsApp, and most of all, they love hanging out with their friends.

12-year-old Naymati’s dad and little brother.

No external photographer could take these pictures or tell these stories for them, they are too personal.

I’ll be working with the kids over the next two months to keep online photo diaries so that others can share those glimpses into their world, and so that they can surprise others as they have surprised me with their talent, energy and enthusiasm, and the beauty they see around them.

Their pictures. Their stories. Told their way.

I hope you’ll join them on the journey.