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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Photographer Hopes To Put Face On Syrian Statistics

In Akbiya, Lebanon, these dark, underground streets -- former storage units -- are home to more than 200 Syrian refugees. Children play in the dirty water and in the darkness. (Elena Dorfman)Dva’a, 17, lives with her brother in northern Lebanon. The rest of her family stayed behind in Syria. Although they once planned on all living together, they are now too scared to leave Syria. Dva’a says that this war has torn her life to pieces and has had a huge impact on her psychologically. She lives in fear, is listless, and has doubts about her future. She says that she can still hear the bombs and shelling over her head, although she is now safe in Lebanon. She said that at 17 she’s just beginning to be the person she will become, although her life is in limbo and she has no idea what her future holds. (Elena Dorfman)A dreamscape on the outside of living quarters in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. (Elena Dorfman)Farman, 20, came to the Domiz refugee camp in Kurdistan with his cousin. In the early days of the revolution he became somewhat of an activist, taking and posting pictures of the demonstrations in his area. When his friends were arrested for the same activities he became scared and left the country for northern Iraq. He worries about his parents who were left behind. Most days he sits with his friends in a small room that four of them share, unable to find work and unsure where to go next. (Elena Dorfman)An informal tented settlement for Syrian refugees in Anjar, Lebanon. (Elena Dorfman)Iman, 19, from Homs, is married but her husband stayed in Syria. She last saw him four months ago. He can’t leave the country because he is of army age and, if caught crossing a checkpoint, will be sent to fight for the regime. She misses him by her side and dreams of living a normal life back in Syria, in their own home. She said that she cleans the room she shares in a collective shelter obsessively, because it is the only thing she can do, the only control she has. (Elena Dorfman)I’tmad, 17, has been wearing the same clothes since she escaped Homs, Syria four months ago. Before reaching Lebanon, she and her family moved from apartment to apartment for many months, trying to avoid shelling. She now lives on the top floor of a collective shelter where, she said, she never leaves the apartment. She knows only her family and the one room where they live. She tells me that she misses her classmates, her home, and the taste of Syrian falafel and humus. She was once an Arabic language student with many awards but brought no books with her when she fled, and has no idea if or when she’ll ever be able to return to her studies. (Elena Dorfman)A hand-made shelter for a Syrian refugee family in Ketermaya. The family was invited by the owner to live on Lebanese farmland. (Elena Dorfman)Hamada, 21, narrowly missed being forced into the army when a guard who had caught him at a checkpoint turned away to tend to something else. At that same moment, rebel fighters shot and killed the guard and Hamada was able to run away. Like his friend Tamer, he lives in a dark, tiny room on the outskirts of Beirut with four other refugees. His parents urged him to leave Syria because they were afraid he would be conscripted. He left the country using the identity of his youngest brother who wasn’t of army age. He’s been in Lebanon for six months and says that he is emotionally destroyed, depressed, scared and worried about how to pay the rent, how to eat, how to get by. (Elena Dorfman)A one-year old Syrian refugee in his bed and play pen in Tripoli, Lebanon. His family fled Syria just after he was born. He spends most of his time in this box which is his bed, play pen, refuge. This crate resides on the grounds of an active slaughter house where his family now lives. (Elena Dorfman)Hani, 19, is originally from Homs, Syria, but now lives in a dusty tented settlement in Madjel Anjar, Lebanon. Although most of the people in the cluster of tents by the side of the road have been there for nearly a year, toilets were installed only one month ago. Hani brought books with him when he and his family fled, a reminder of his old life in school. He says, “In Syria, my country, I miss everything. I miss my friends so much. I miss the streets, my teachers, my future university. I miss drinking my coffee with the birds. I miss Fayruz songs. I miss my brothers’ smiles in the morning”. He says that he is proud of himself because he still has his mind, his heart. He lost his country but he did not lose his personality or his spirit. (Elena Dorfman)

Elena Dorfman recently returned after a six-month assignment for the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency.

She was sent to take portraits of Syrian refugees who have fled their country because of the civil war. Over two million Syrians have registered as refugees with the U.N., and over 700,000 of them have settled in Lebanon, where Dorfman spent most of her time.

In the course of her project, Dorfman was struck particularly by the young adults she met. One of the young Syrian refugees she met, a 19-year-old named Hani, left an indelible impression on her.

I want to be able to believe that what I saw in them can be conveyed through the photographs.

– Elena Dorfman

“Hani was such a bright star,” Dorfman told Here & Now’s Robin Young. “He’s incredibly interested in what’s going on in the world, and what’s going on outside of his very small tented world at the moment.”

There are no organized settlement in Lebanon, so refugees are creating shelter wherever they can. One of the families she met lived in an active slaughterhouse.

On what kind of impact she hopes her photographs will have, Dorfman says, “I want people to be able to connect with the kids. I want to be able to believe that what I saw in them can be conveyed through the photographs … I just want the kids not to be a statistic.”

Dorfman shares some of her photos in the slideshow above, as well as a portrait of Hani, below. You can also hear some of the interviews Dorfman conducted with the young adults she met, below.

Hani, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee is pictured in Lebanon. He was among the only English speakers Dorfman met. He says that although he has lost his country to the war, "I have not lost my spirit." (Elena Dorfman)

Hani, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee is pictured in Lebanon. He was among the only English speakers Dorfman met. He says that although he has lost his country to the war, “I have not lost my spirit.” (Elena Dorfman)

Translation: I’m 24-years-old. I am from Homs in Syria. My story? I was studying law and I was very successful in my studies. And I was the head of my class at the end of this year. Unfortunately, because of the situation, I moved away from my studies. And it has been very painful and annoying because I considered my education very precious. Really. I am very, very, very annoyed. The ones who are seeking education are most affected during Syria’s events. The middle class is the group who was working in Syria to secure their daily living; only to secure their daily living, that’s it. They did not ask for more. They did not work toward building palaces, or something else. They wanted to secure a life for their children. This group is the most affected one. I am noticing here, from Lebanon, I am noticing the middle class.And I am one of them. They make you cry, those are the ones who are affected.

They left their houses, even if they were simple houses. I used to live in a very classy house, very beautiful. Not like here. I am being trapped here. I sleep in the same room as my sisters. My freedom is limited.

I used to live in a big house, have my own room. I used to go out, whenever I wanted, come back whenever I wanted. Here our freedom is very limited. It is true that i am a young man. Here, I go out in Lebanon, but I am not having my freedom like I had it in Syria.

Translation: I am 18 years-old. I was in 11th grade in Syria. I came here [to Lebanon] because of the shelling. We couldn’t bear the shelling. I came here w my relatives. My immediate family stayed in Syria. Now i have brothers here. We did not come together here. Each one of us came alone. I still have part of my family there in Syria.

Right now I am here, continuing my study here in Lebanon to ease the pain we faced in Syria. The only thing that makes it easier on us here is going to school. School reduces the pain but it does not take it away.

We need to finish our study and to follow our ambition, to achieve our dream and our country’s dream.

In Syria, my ambition was … I don’t know sometimes; I feel it is a dream. But I won’t give it up and nothing will harm it. My dream is to finish school, and go to a good college and become an engineer, a doctor, or a pharmacist. Just to have my family be proud of me.

Translation: I hope … I’d like to go back right now before tomorrow comes to finish my school. Not everyone understands the meaning of the word homeland. The homeland is everything; it is very valuable. It is all that we have. It is part of our bodies.

Of course, I’m still hopeful. We have faith in God. We shouldn’t give up the hope to return home. But right now we should live our life here. We should keep moving in our life here, and when we return, we will bring back our life that we left.

Translations by Nidal Al-Azraq.


  • Elena Dorfman, a photographer who was on assignment for the UNHCR. She tweets @elenadorfman.

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