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




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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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Crisis in Iraq: Displacement

UNHCR and its partners estimate that out of a total population of 26 million, some 1.9 million Iraqis are currently displaced internally and more than 2 million others have fled to nearby countries. While many people were displaced before 2003, increasing numbers of Iraqis are now fleeing escalating sectarian, ethnic and general violence. Since January 2006, UNHCR estimates that more than 800,000 Iraqis have been uprooted and that 40,000 to 50,000 continue to flee their homes every month. UNHCR anticipates there will be approximately 2.3 million internally displaced people within Iraq by the end of 2007. The refugee agency and its partners have provided emergency assistance, shelter and legal aid to displaced Iraqis where security has allowed.

In January 2007, UNHCR launched an initial appeal for US$60 million to fund its Iraq programme. Despite security issues for humanitarian workers inside the country, UNHCR and partners hope to continue helping up to 250,000 of the most vulnerable internally displaced Iraqis and their host communities

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Crisis in Iraq: Displacement

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After Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled in Iraq in 2003, groups of refugees who had lived in the country for many years tried to leave the chaos and lawlessness that soon ensued. Hundreds of people started fleeing to the border with Jordan, including Palestinians in Baghdad and Iranian Kurds from the Al Tash refugee camp in central Iraq.

Aside from a few Palestinians with family connections inside the neighbouring country, the refugees were refused entry and free movement in Jordan. Thousands were soon stranded in the no-man's land between Iraq and Jordan or at the desert camp of Ruweished, located 60 kilometres inside Jordan.

Since 2003, Palestinians, Iranian Kurds, Iranians, Sudanese and Somalis have been living there and suffering the scorching heat and freezing winters of the Jordanian desert. UNHCR and its partners have provided housing and assistance and tried to find solutions – the agency has helped resettle more than 1,000 people in third countries. At the beginning of 2007, a total of 119 people – mostly Palestinians – remained in Ruweished camp without any immediate solution in sight.

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Non-Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

The UN refugee agency has launched a US$60 million appeal to fund its work helping hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people. The new appeal concludes that unremitting violence in Iraq will likely mean continued mass internal and external displacement affecting much of the surrounding region. The appeal notes that the current exodus is the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since the displacement of Palestinians following the creation of Israel in 1948.

UNHCR has warned that the longer this conflict goes on, the more difficult it will become for the hundreds of thousands of displaced and the communities that are trying to help them – both inside and outside Iraq. Because the burden on host communities and governments in the region is enormous, it is essential that the international community support humanitarian efforts.

The US$60 million will cover UNHCR's protection and assistance programmes for Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey, as well as non-Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people within Iraq itself.

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Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

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