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Image by Mohammad Nour Al-Balbesi, age 16.

PHOTO ESSAY: ‘Even more trapped than we were before.’ Syrian students document life in a refugee camp amid the pandemic

As journalists are restricted from entering the camp, photography students provide a glimpse into what quarantine looks like in the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp.

When Wala’ Zain Al Abedeen first heard of the coronavirus, she didn’t think it was dangerous. But as more news came to the Za’atari Refugee Camp, where the 17-year-old student lives with her family, “the more dangerous we understood it to be.”

“We all got stressed. There was a lot of anxiety.”

Since March 21, Za’atari, the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp, has been under strict lockdown. While the majority of the globe has been under various stages of lockdown as governments attempt to stem the spread of the virus, the enforced isolation is particularly constricting within the confines of a refugee camp. As of Dec. 27, 831 positive COVID-19 cases and four deaths have been confirmed in Za’atari, out of their total estimated population of 78,338, according to UNHCR.

Sign translates to “Stay home for the sake of your kids.” Image by Zahret Al Banafsij.

Masks are mandatory in public areas, there is a curfew and permits which allow refugees to leave and return to the camp have been suspended.

“I feel like I’m in a cage,” said Mohammad Abu Jeish, a 17-year-old senior from Syria’s southern city of Daraa, who now lives with his family in the camp. He shares a shelter with his parents, six brothers, and two sisters. “I am stuck in a cage and not able to do what I used to do before” COVID-19.

Both Abu Jeish and Wala’ Zain Al Abedeen are photography students through Lens on Life, a nonprofit that offers photography and life skills classes to Syrian youth in Za’atari Refugee Camp. To cope with the stress, fears, and strangeness of increased isolation amidst a global pandemic, the students are documenting their experiences through photography.

Living under lockdown

Like photographers around the world, these Syrian photography students have found comfort in their cameras, their art becoming an avenue for processing the anxieties of an invisible and highly deadly disease. Already restricted to the confines of the refugee camp, now they cannot leave the cramped shelters they often share with numerous family members.

“Before I used to go out with my friends,” said Mohammad Bedewi, 17, who is drawn to nature photography. “We could go out and about and be able to take pictures. But we need permission to go outside now.”

Image by Mohammad Bedewii, age 17.

Since cars, buses, and other outside transportation have been limited from entering the camp, even approved movement has become more difficult, particularly for the elderly or those with preexisting conditions. Restrictions barring anyone from leaving the camp have also created an added financial burden for families who have lost their employment opportunities outside of the camp. “My brothers are the breadwinners. One is a chef. One is a fruit cocktail expert. They run a shop at the university: one is in charge of smoothies; one does the food. They take care of the entire family. It has been bad since they have been out of work. We try to stay positive, but financially we are struggling,” said Sundos Fuad Al Masri, 16.

Image by Mohammad Nour Al-Balbesi, age 16.

The increased isolation and stress of living under lockdown, compounding the isolation of being a refugee in a country that is not home, carries a psychological heaviness.

“We’re even more trapped than we were before,” said Mohammad Al-Balbisi, who is 16 years old and preparing to be a junior next year.

Attempting to keep up with their studies during lockdown has also turned into a point of stress for students, particularly those who are graduating. While distance learning programs have been put in place after Za’atari’s 32 schools were closed, the new digital formats present their own unique challenges. “A lot of our teachers created Whatsapp groups and teach us over Whatsapp…” Al Abedeen said. She is sheltering with her family which includes 6 children and her grandmother — nine people in total. “I don’t have a phone so I use my mother’s. There are 4 of us who have to share the phone. Each of us has a different group on Whatsapp with our teachers.”

Throughout the challenges, Lens on Life Teacher Mohammad Khalf has encouraged his students to continue making art with their mobile phones as an avenue to process their own emotions as well as to document this moment in time. To help keep them motivated, he hosts photo contests for the students via their class Facebook group. “Their photography changed,” he said. “Most of the students before the virus would go and photograph sports events…Now, the focus is on home cooked meals. Some people take pictures of the farm around their house. The flowers around their house. Their siblings. Everything has become life at home.”

Abu Jeish is both a photographer and a poet. For him, the images he is creating now are a way to explore and express his inner world during the lockdown. “The state of mind I am in… is very conflicting,” he said. “On the one hand, I am sad and feel desperation because we are restricted to the life at home. But on the other hand, I am experiencing joy. I am able to spend quality time with my family. That is something we had to set time for previously. Now we are able to do it more. But we do feel the pressure. We have a lot of time we have to fill.”

“Taking photos on my mobile. That is our way of coping,” al Masri said. “The quarantine has been a little rough on us but that hasn’t stopped us from taking photos and writing poetry.”

“I want to show the world”

For many of the Lens on Life students, the purpose of photography is more than a hobby or even a potential profession. They see themselves as poets, artists, and visual historians. They are advocates for the right to frame their own narratives and to fight for their own futures in a world that wants to define them by a single label: refugee.

“I want to show the world that this is not who we are,” Abu Jeish said. “We are innovative. We are successful. We are smart. We are not just people who live in tents — we are not refugees. We are not losers. We are the complete opposite of that… I want to impress the world with what we are capable of. I am proud to be Syrian.”

For al Masri, this includes the dream of working full-time as a professional photojournalist one day once she graduates: “There are lots of success stories [here] that no one hears about,” she explains. “There is no one here to document it– to make it reach the world. I want to do it because I am living this reality, and I want to convey this message.”

“People think we are just refugees and we are not creative and not innovative,” Sadeen Qasem Al-Hariri, 12, said. “I want them to know that we can do a lot of things and that we are very special.”

“I would like to send my message to the world that I love my homeland and that I long to go back. And I would hate to see any refugee hungry, poor, or in need. I want them all to go home to their homeland. I would love to go back to Syria and take pictures of nature, kids that live there and take photos of what their lives are like.”

Mohammad Abu Jeish, age 17, feels restricted by the rules of pandemic safety while also living in a refugee camp.

Mohammad Abu Jeish, 17

“We have a lot of time we have to fill. I write poetry, read, and learn more about photography and photo skills because I want to fill my time with something useful. But I feel restricted because there are rules.”

Image by Mohammad Nour Al-Balbesi, age 16.

Mohammad Nour Al-Balbesi, 16

“Before the quarantine, we were able to go around the camp readily and freely. Now we can’t do any of that. We are at home. If we go out in the camp, it is certain hours. We have a curfew. I miss school and distance learning has been different.”

Image by Mohammad Nour Al-Balbesi, age 16.

Mohammad Nour Al-Balbesi, 16

“My camera is my second eye. Through photography, I can share my reality.”

Image by Mohammad Bedewii, age 17.

Mohammad Bedewii, 17

“Photography for me is a lot deeper. Photography is how my day went. How i am feeling that day. That’s why I add a narrative to photos. That is what I want to share with the world. My day to day life. My feelings. I want people to know that it is not just a photo.”

Image by Sundos Fuad Al Masri, age 16.

Sundos Fuad Al Masri, 16

“We want people in other countries to know. We are together in everything. We are happy together. We are sad together. We experience everything together. We always want to smile even though we are going through hardships, we keep smiling. The quarantine has been a little rough on us, but that hasn’t stopped us from taking photos and writing poetry.”

Image by Mohammad Abu Jeish, age 17.

Mohammad Abu Jeish, 17

“I would love for my voice to be heard because I have lived through this experience. I have experienced this first hand. I know what it is like to live in Za’atari. But I think the most important thing is to change the misconception that people have. If they come to Za’atari they will see we are not refugees. We are not losers. We are just going through these circumstances. I want to show people what we are capable of.”

“I feel like I am confined in a cage. I am stuck in a cage and not able to do what I used to do before.”

Image by Mohammad Nour Al-Balbesi, age 16.

Mohammad Nour Al-Balbesi, 16

“We’re even more trapped than we were before.”

Image by Sundos Fuad Al Masri, age 16.

Sundos Fuad Al Masri, age 16

“I am ambitious, and when a girl is ambitious, nothing will ever stop her. When my friends come over, they wear a mask and gloves. We see each other from a distance. We keep taking photos in our home. I write stories. I am feeling a lot better nowadays.”

Image by Wala’ Zain Al Abedeen, age 17.

Wala’ Zain Al Abedeen, 17

“I don’t have a phone, so I use my mother’s. There are four of us who have to share the phone. Each of us have a different group on Whatsapp with our teachers. That is also the same phone that I use to take photos. I don’t take pictures until we are all done studying.”

Image by Sundos Fuad Al Masri, age 16.

Sundos Fuad Al Masri, 16

“I notice that we have beautiful flowers at home that I had never noticed before. I started taking care of the flowers in quarantine. I found a way to distract myself from the current situation by caring for the flowers. Because the quarantine confined us at home and affected me mentally, the flowers were cheering me up.”

Image by Sadeen Qasem Al-Hariri, age 12.

Sadeen Qasem Al-Hariri, 12

“I would like to send a message to the world that I love my homeland and that I long to go back. And I would hate to see any refugee hungry, poor, or in need. I want them all to go home to their homeland. I would love to go back to Syria and take pictures of nature, kids that live there, and take photos of what their lives are like.”

Image by Mohammad Abu Jeish, age 17.

Mohammad Abu Jeish, 17

“The state of mind I am in… is very conflicting. On the one hand, we are sad and feel desperation because we are restricted to the life at home. But on the other hand, we are experiencing joy that I am able to spend quality time with my family.”

Image by Sadeen Qasem Al-Hariri, age 12.

Sadeen Qasem Al-Hariri, 12

“In the beginning, we didn’t take the virus seriously because we didn’t know the danger that it posed. We just thought it was another virus. When it finally reached Jordan, we started getting scared. We heard it could lead to death… We are doing everything we can to sanitize and clean.”

Image by Wala’ Zain Al Abedeen, age 17.

Wala’ Zain Al Abedeen, 17

“Sunrise at the camp. And with every sunrise… comes a new hope.”

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