Syrian children in Canada capture refugee life on camera

Syrian children in Canada capture refugee life on camera
Refugee children arriving in Vancouver from war-torn Syria were given cameras to help them recover from their experiences and document a new reality. Hadani Ditmars visited the exhibition.
5 min read
27 September, 2016
Children were given disposable cameras to capture their new lives in Canada [Hadani Ditmars]

At a downtown Vancouver art gallery, there is a buzz in the crowd on this weekday evening.

But there are no cocktails, only zatar and spinach pies.

Much of the conversation is in Arabic and Kurdish, and a third of the crowd are children under 12, having recently arrived from a war-zone.

For this is no ordinary exhibition, but rather one that celebrates the work of Syrian refugee children, all given disposable cameras and an invitation to document their new Canadian reality.

The phenomenon of giving refugees and the displaced cameras as a tool for self-expression is not a new one.

In 2013, Save the Children and UNICEF organised an exhibition of images from children in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan called Tomorrow’s Memories: Life in Za’atari Camp through the Eyes of the Children.

According to organisers, the project aimed to "help refugee children recover from their experiences by giving them the space to express themselves, share their stories and stimulate their imagination".

In January 2015, a similar project was organised by UNICEF and Zakera, a Lebanese NGO that specialises in photography.

More than 500 Syrian refugee children were given basic photographic training and disposable cameras in order to document their lives.

An exhibition in Beirut was then organised showcasing the best of the work and offering selected children the opportunity to share their refugee stories with international media.

Read more: Photographing carnage: the award-winning Palestinian documenting Syria's war

But now it seems, as Canada deals with integrating the 25,000 Syrian refugees it accepted over the past year, the vogue for "empowering" Syrian children through photography has come to the land of Justin Trudeau.

At the Winnipeg Art Gallery, The Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties opened an exhibition named Using Photography To Communicate, a photovoice project.

Working with a wide range of youth and adult refugees primarily from Syria, Iraq and Jordan, project organisers gave the newcomers - many of whom had only been in Canada for a few weeks - disposable cameras so they could document their new reality.

But for the Canadian projects, it seems, it's much more "don't mention the war" than in the Middle Eastern incarnations, perhaps fittingly for a new world reality where immigrants are encouraged to forget their past and forge new futures.


Volunteer curators in Vancouver put together Capturing Our Stories: An Exhibition of Syrian Children's Photography at the Interurban Art Gallery as a way to move beyond the "imposed expectation" that refugees stories are exclusively ones of trauma.

Indeed whatever trauma these children endured is far from the surface today, as they play and chatter as kids their age do, interrupting questions from the public with phone gaming, running around the gallery space, and taking turns playing a donated piano. At one point they even get up to dance a dubke.

The celebratory mood is in line with the subject matter of the exhibition. Twelve-year-old Syrian-Kurdish girl Barfin Shaiko's black and white image of a giant swing ride at a local amusement park called Playland sets the tone.

"It's my favourite," said Barfin of the image, exuding joy and freedom and movement. "It looks really nice and the sky behind it looks black and white and the people look so small in it… It's super cool."

Refugee children's photography

Other images include trees and flowers and a friend's balcony at night - all luxuries in her hometown of Aleppo.

When asked what she hopes to become when she grows up, it's clear that the photography workshop has made an impression on her. "I always dreamt of becoming a doctor," she confesses, "but now I’m thinking of photography."

Nine-year-old Narin Ferho is dressed in a flowery print dress that complements her photography - which is mainly of bright, beautiful flowers: a red rose bush, a close up of a sunflower, and a delicate lotus blossom in a lily pond, all encountered on a school field trip.

Like all the other children, Narin's biography below her work, described as a "fictional interpretation", calls her a "botanist and ballerina" and looking into an imagined future evisages her a "researcher" doing "inter-disciplinary performance-research that has been acclaimed world wide".

Narin hasn't been here that long and her English is faltering, but when asked what she wants to be when she grows up she says with a deep sense of conviction: "I will be a doctor."


According to Mary Kam of SUCCESS - an immigrant assistance program started several decades ago aimed at new Chinese and Hong Kong immigrants that now works with Middle Eastern refugees and helped sponsor the exhibition (together with Simon Fraser University), "these kids have so much potential".

Despite their vulnerability and past trauma and even PTSD, she noted: "They're not showing this so much in their behaviour."

She applauds the exhibition for focusing on "positivity and creativity" as coping skills for the new arrivals.

Nine-year-old Kurdish-Syrian girl Lilan Omer has a "future biography" that reads "model, actress and pianist who took the Canadian fashion scene by storm" and "modelled in France, Japan and the US," appearing "on the cover of Vogue magazine countless times".

But, for now, the round-faced girl dressed in a jean jacket vest and stylish blue dress lives in a nearby suburb with her parents and sister. Her work is mainly portraiture - both self-portraits in public parks and gardens, and images of her friends and family.

When queried about her subject matter she replied: "I like to photograph people I love."

She went to school in Syria, she said, but her education was interrupted by the war. When asked what her favorite subject is now she does not miss a beat, replying: "Photography."

The thing she likes best about Canada she says is "the rain. I love the rain". As for any bad memories of Syria, she might have, she replied stoically: "I am not scared about anything."

But when asked what she misses the most, she opens up.  "Everything. I miss everything and everyone. My friends, my teachers. I just want to go back home now but I can't yet. So we are just staying here until it's better."

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq. A former editor at New Internationalist, she has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades. Her next book, Ancient Heart, is a political travelogue of Iraqi heritage sites.

Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars