The Most Important Picture of Syria: Children Explore Life in Refugee Camps Through Pictures and Prose

Published in
4 min readJan 18, 2017


by Brendan Bannon

A Tearful Laugh. It was simultaneously funny and sad when I asked my mom, “Why did you bring the house keys with you?” And without an answer everyone began to laugh. These keys are useless as they are the keys to a house that is almost completely destroyed. My mom’s laugh quickly turned into tears that paved their path onto her cheeks and silenced the sound of that brilliant laugh. I also cried after that scene. — Hani al Moulia

In 2014–15 I taught photography and writing to Syrian refugee youth in Lebanon and Jordan.

The children had fled a country undone by war and littered with carnage: Syria. They lived with memories of chaos and loss. Some of their parents had been killed in Syria, while most of the students still had family trapped in various locations across the country. Most had lost friends and classmates.

One girl carried the names of 67 people who had died. They were written on a small tattered scroll that she fit inside a bullet casing she found. She unrolled the scroll occasionally to remember or add another name.

My students lived in refugee camps and among informal settlements in Lebanon and Jordan. They had left conventional lives behind in Syria and struggled to find a sense of belonging and hope in camps surrounded by other exiled people. Mostly, however, they struggled to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter because they lived in donated tents and prefabricated metal containers.

I selected this group of images because they represent powerful ideas about home that people carry with them. Each photograph taken by a child, and the description that follows, depicts the conditions of life in the refugee camps.

The children’s reflections were always filled with self-awareness and often distinguished by surprise and irony. The thing that I remember most is that they were also infused with compassion, tenderly expressed by Hani Al Moulia:

“The fence and people are woven together. Fences are the fabric of our lives.”

The project was made possible with support from exceptional course assistants and translators, often refugees themselves. The workshops were sponsored by the UNHCR and the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

What we are looking for through the window is the future. Our life is bad. When we look out the window of the tent it all looks wrong. — Sheefa
Za’atari camp from the air. A map of the Za’atari camp showing the organization, the aid, the roads, and the people in their tragic situation. — Quasem
Those guys are going off to work pulling sand and stone on a chariot. There is a little child in front of them. — Sheefa
A girl with a broom sweeps around the plants and the tent clearing dirt away from the plants. — Malaak
We are surrounded by iron fences. — Randa
My family will play and have fun. We will go further. Even if thousands are too lazy to help the refugees we will make it through these critical days. A brighter future awaits. — Fatima
A simple dream of mine. You wouldn’t imagine. I only dream of owning a home, just a small one, and taking care of all of its needs. — Fatima
Cooking at home. — Abdalghafar
A child’s vision in Za’atari camp is different from other children in the world. The child in the refugee camp looks at the very far horizon to find a way out of this situation and carry on with her life — just like all children. Play, joy, happiness, friendship, childhood. — Raghda
A bird eating in his cage. Birds are used as decoration in homes and shops. — Abdalghafar
Caught between the past and the future. This view is authentic and traditional. In the past, we used to cook on the stove in the kitchen. Now, we cook on wood outside. — Mohammed Hmajdi
I hate fire. Why? Because in the camp our neighbor’s tent burned. Other tents burned after that. — Maha
Our refugee families at home. — Ayat
This is our house and everything there. — Abdalghafar
My tent has become my university, a lab, a studio, a theater. And in it I became the teacher, the professor, the student, the guard, the actor, the dancer, and even the photographer. — Hani al Moulia
In the camp where I live, this is what the operation of getting your hair cut looks like. A barber is called and the operation is often done outside in order to keep the tents clean. This is reality. — Hani al Moulia
Happy birthday with kids. For the new year everybody celebrates because the boy is older. The birthday party is good joy. People bring him a nice gift. The mom is happy with her child. — Abdalrahman
Even the dog is cared for with his own broken tent. — Hani al Moulia
The fence and the people are woven together into one fabric. Fences are the fabric of our lives. — Hani al Moulia
I always try to look and listen to the camp from a distance, from a high point, as if I am an orchestra conductor. I stand for a long time, listening to those tunes. To those amazing musical pieces that carry the sound of children crying, parents’ anger, laughter, kitchen utensils, food, birds, wood being broken. The musical piece ends with the beginning of the night. — Hani al Moulia
Every day the camp expands more and more. It is a huge camp with so many refugees. We started with tents and now it’s caravans. I hope to return home before they start building houses. — Randa
The moment of rain and light. A smile full of the sad dark night. The flying drops of water bring me home to Homs. Communities, alleys, houses, and air full of laughter. — Ahoud