Teenage Iraqi refugees focus on a career in Damascus exercise

News Stories, 3 September 2008

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

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




UNHCR country pages

Refworld – Children

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Livelihoods and Self-Reliance

We help refugees, refugee returnees and internally displaced people tap their potential and build a platform for a better future.

Teaching About Refugees, Art

Refugees contribute to the culture of their host community. Some are well-known artists, painters, poets or novelists. Dante Alighieri created the major part of his work during his exile. Playwright Bertold Brecht, authors Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka, poets Pablo Neruda and Jorge Semprun, musician Miguel Angel Estrellas, painters Lucian Freud and Remedios Varo - all suffered periods of exile which, in some cases, deeply colored their work. The theme of exile can be studied in literature, the history of music and art.

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Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

As world concern grows over the plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians, including more than 200,000 refugees, UNHCR staff are working around the clock to provide vital assistance in neighbouring countries. At the political level, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres was due on Thursday (August 30) to address a closed UN Security Council session on Syria.

Large numbers have crossed into Lebanon to escape the violence in Syria. By the end of August, more than 53,000 Syrians across Lebanon had registered or received appointments to be registered. UNHCR's operations for Syrian refugees in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley resumed on August 28 after being briefly suspended due to insecurity.

Many of the refugees are staying with host families in some of the poorest areas of Lebanon or in public buildings, including schools. This is a concern as the school year starts soon. UNHCR is urgently looking for alternative shelter. The majority of the people looking for safety in Lebanon are from Homs, Aleppo and Daraa and more than half are aged under 18. As the conflict in Syria continues, the situation of the displaced Syrians in Lebanon remains precarious.

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Turkish Camps Provide Shelter to 90,000 Syrian Refugees

By mid-September, more than 200,000 Syrian refugees had crossed the border into Turkey. UNHCR estimates that half of them are children, and many have seen their homes destroyed in the conflict before fleeing to the border and safety.

The Turkish authorities have responded by building well-organized refugee camps along southern Turkey's border with Syria. These have assisted 120,000 refugees since the crisis conflict erupted in Syria. There are currently 12 camps hosting 90,000 refugees, while four more are under construction. The government has spent approximately US$300 million to date, and it continues to manage the camps and provide food and medical services.

The UN refugee agency has provided the Turkish government with tents, blankets and kitchen sets for distribution to the refugees. UNHCR also provides advice and guidelines, while staff from the organization monitor voluntary repatriation of refugees.

Most of the refugees crossing into Turkey come from areas of northern Syria, including the city of Aleppo. Some initially stayed in schools or other public buildings, but they have since been moved into the camps, where families live in tents or container homes and all basic services are available.

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The UN refugee agency has 350 staff working inside Syria. Despite the insecurity, they continue to distribute vital assistance in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Al Hassakeh and Homs. Thanks to their work and dedication, more than 350,000 people have received non-food items such as blankets, kitchen sets and mattresses. These are essential items for people who often flee their homes with no more than the clothes on their backs. Cash assistance has been given to more than 10,600 vulnerable Syrian families.

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