Teenage Iraqi refugees focus on a career in Damascus exercise

British photographers train young Iraqi refugees in Damascus to use the camera to highlight their issues and concerns in exile.

Poetry in Motion: A bicyclist caught by the lens of one of the young Iraqi photographers.   © UNHCR

DAMASCUS, Syria, September 3 (UNHCR) - Threading his way through the streets of old Damascus, the bicyclist suddenly faced an unexpected obstacle - a group of energetic teenagers trying to capture movement on camera.

"Look, look what I got," an excited 17-year-old Samer shouted to his friends, before showing them the image of the passing biker captured on his digital camera. The group of young people laughed a lot as they shared their efforts, ranging from dire to excellent.

But this was not a game. Samer and his nine colleagues, aged 15-17, are Iraqi refugees and they were engaged in a course run by British photographers that could give them the skills to become a wage-earning photojournalist covering the fascinating and turbulent world around him.

"It is hard to get it right, but I am learning," the budding photojournalist Samer said, as Tom Saunderson and Guy Bower monitored their charges from a distance. Henderson and Bower, together with Tim Smyth, are behind New Exposure, the organization conducting the course.

The agency was set up to help find and provide hands-on tuition to young photojournalists who do not have easy access to equipment or training. New Exposure also hopes to develop the ability of local photojournalists to cover stories of global interest in their own countries and communities.

In Syria, they have just completed a four-week workshop with the 10 Iraqi refugees, who were chosen by the UN refugee agency for the training, part of a New Exposure project titled, "Berlin to Baghdad: Children of Conflict."

"It is fantastic to see the kids enjoying themselves, making friends and learning an art which can be useful later in their life," UNHCR outreach worker, Hussam Mukhtar, said, while noting that "many of them have fled Iraq out of fear, because their relatives were killed, kidnapped or threatened."

Saunderson, whose own work has appeared in a wide range of publications, said he was impressed by the work produced by the young Iraqis. "My initial impression of the project and students was very encouraging; their motivation, self confidence and will to learn was fantastic."

Under the Berlin to Baghdad project launched in May in Kosovo, New Exposure's photographers will be working with young people affected by conflict in countries along the route of the historic railway line between the German and Iraqi capitals.

"We decided to do this project in Syria with Iraqi refugees as it is an ongoing [news] story with a lot of controversy," Saunderson said, referring to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have fled to neighbouring Syria and are struggling to get by. UNHCR has registered refugees and provides aid.

New Exposure believes the lives of the Iraqis in Syria have not received enough coverage in mainstream media. Saunderson said the photojournalism course would give the participants the skills to express themselves and tell their stories themselves to a wider, global audience.

It should also provide a valuable source of income as they struggle to make ends meet far from home. Samer has missed out on an education because he has had to go out and work as an unskilled labourer since arriving in Syria in 2006. "My father left us in Iraq. Somebody had to take responsibility. There is no one else but me," he explained.

Samer saw the photo workshop as a big opportunity to break out of the spiral of poverty and do something interesting and positive. It also helped him make new friends and learn more about the place he is now living in.

New Exposure plans eventually to organize a travelling exhibition featuring photographs from the Berlin to Baghdad project, including those taken in Syria. A book may also be published.

By Astrid van Genderen Stort in Damascus, Syria