Women By Women 2024: The exhibition dismantling stereotypes about female refugees

Women by women exhibition
5 min read
07 March, 2024

They say a picture is worth a thousand words – that’s never been more true than for F Dilek Yurdakul, whose portraits of Syrian refugees are on display as part of ActionAid’s Women by Women exhibition.

Showing in London’s gallery@oxo in the heart of Southbank, these powerful photos aim to challenge stereotypes around refugees, celebrating women who have triumphed over hardship to mark International Women’s Day 2024.

The free exhibition, open from 7-10 March, also features photography from Bangladeshi, Polish, Ugandan and Colombian female photographers, spotlighting the stories of 21 women refugees living in these countries.

“Photography writes history, and I wanted visitors to the exhibition to hear the stories of these strong women, fleeing war and torture in their homelands”

Not only do these images put faces to the refugee experience, but celebrate these inspiring women and the incredible contributions refugees make to their host communities, plus the women-led organisations that supported them after their arrival. 

Women Exhibition
Hasne teaching within Kareemat [F Dilek Yurdakul]

“Photography is the eye of those who are not there. It is the voice of the voiceless,” Dilek says as we speak over Zoom, just 30 minutes before she leaves Ankara for her flight to London.

“Photography writes history, and I wanted visitors to the exhibition to hear the stories of these strong women, fleeing war and torture in their homelands.”

Dilek calls out two women whose stories stuck in her mind. First, Najla Al-Sheikh, founder of Kareemat, an organisation supporting Syrian women affected by the war to reach self-sufficiency through craft as well as providing community and education.

Forced to flee in 2012 after bombs devastated her community and with her husband detained by the Assad regime, Najla is now based in Kilis, Turkey. It was Najla’s career as a psychologist in Syria that pushed her towards founding Kareemat. 

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“It pained me to see lines of women refugees in Kilis waiting to receive free food and basic necessities. Seeing them like this was emotional and I started to invite them to my house just to understand their stories.

"It was then I realised that most had lost their husbands, and many had five or six children to support. I realised how psychologically affected the women were by the war and that they needed to talk, so we started meeting and inviting all Syrian women who wanted to join.”

Now, Najla says the women meet every day to talk and make breakfast together: “With Kareemat, we’re safe. It’s like a haven.” 

Yasmina Benshi was detained by the Syrian regime but was released from prison in 2014. Since then, she has worked tirelessly to provide life-saving services and support for Syrian refugees through her organisation Freedom Jasmine.

"I believe in the power of women and that we can change the world. Women are the ones who grow children, we can shape the future"

Now living in Turkey, Yasmina supported around 500 women after the February 2023 earthquake with food parcels, dignity kits and other emergency supplies in both Turkey and Syria.

“Many of these women then joined our training workshops and some of them are now leaders within their communities,” Yasmina says. 

Women Exhibition
Kareemat supports women’s economic empowerment through training and education and promotes peacebuilding among the local community living in Kilis [F Dilek Yurdakul]

“The women I photographed have not only left everything and built a brand new life in a new country where they don’t even speak the same language, but also strive for the development of other women experiencing the same difficulties,” Dilek adds, saying that Najla and Yasmina’s stories still give her goosebumps. 

“I believe in the power of women and that we can change the world. Women are the ones who grow children, we can shape the future. I work hard to show women all over the world that if I can make a change, or highlight these women making a huge difference in more conservative countries, you can too.”

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Dilek points to economic freedom, psychological support and education as vital for this shift to empower female refugees – the Women by Women exhibition also highlights that just 1% of gender equality funding goes to these crucial women-led organisations, many of which are already chronically underfunded.

But rather than see womanhood as a weakness, Dilek stands firm in the fact that being a female photographer has been a strength in her career. 

“Talking with these women isn’t an easy job for a man for various reasons. But as a woman, I could connect with them and have open-hearted and honest conversations,” Dilek says.

She sees understanding the stories of these women as an essential part of her photography, using it to inform her lighting and metaphoric storytelling; take Najla, shot through an open door, or Yasmina, quite literally shattering glass ceilings in Dilek’s award-winning portraiture. 

“These compositions only came after I listened to their stories and spent time with them,” Dilek adds. “If it was a male photographer, they might not want to talk as much.”

Women Exhibition
Kareemat has been able to expand its vocational training programme for women, particularly those who have lost their husbands or sons or have been subjected to exploitation, oppression, and violence during 12 years of conflict in Syria [F Dilek Yurdakul]

Connection and understanding are the key messages of Women by Women, which aims to portray refugee women with dignity and humanity.

Dilek sees photography as a “powerful tool” and a “universal language” in today’s society, where “people are always in a hurry,” attention spans are short and even captions on social media are deemed ‘too long’ to read.

With a single image, Dilek can capture someone’s attention and portray these women as a whole with all their hopes, dreams and heartache, rather than the drains on society some media and governments portray them as. 

“Europe closed their doors to Syrian refugees, but Turkey welcomed them and the women I met are contributing hugely to society.

"We are writing history, and if we raise these women’s voices, people can connect with them and we can make a change.”

ActionAid’s Women by Women exhibition opens at gallery@oxo from 7-10 March

Isabella Silvers is a multi-award-winning editor and journalist, having written for Cosmopolitan, Women's Health, Refinery 29 and more. She also writes a weekly newsletter on mixed-race identity, titled Mixed Messages

Follow her on Twitter: @izzymks