Participatory Photography Empowers Young Syrians as Peace-Builders in Jordan

Geneva, 12 June 2018 - “It’s so beautiful. I can’t believe I am looking at a photo that I took exhibited in an art gallery,” says 12-year-old Nuha, with tears of pride and excitement brimming in her eyes. “It’s funny that the photo is of my brother, though.”

Sharing peace. This picture represents safety, comfort and love. My friend hugged me spontaneously and it was caught on camera. I love the look on my friend’s face as she looks very calm. I believe peace can be given, and she gave me peace when she hugged me. I believe it is only when you find peace inside yourself that you can start to work on peace outside yourself, in the world. (A 14-year-old project participant) Nuha was enjoying herself on the opening day of a photography exhibition in which her work was displayed. She and other young Syrian refugees living in Mafraq, Jordan, had participated in a series of photography workshops organized by the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC). The exhibition, which showcased their compelling photos and stories, was a culminating moment for the young attendees.

Photography can be understood anywhere in the world. Through a series of workshops conducted with the “photovoice” technique, which uses participatory photography to stimulate discussion and reflection on crucial themes, children and youth were encouraged to share their thoughts on issues that affect their lives. The workshops focused on peace-building but also touched identity, gender, space, human relationships and the participants’ hopes and dreams.

Syrian children and youth living in Jordan confront many challenges due to the nature of displacement. Not only do they face a lack of education, with only 60% attending school and recreation activities, but also social isolation, exclusion from decision-making structures and lack a means to have their voices heard.

“Young people are a large and important part of the Syrian refugee community in Jordan, with children under 18 years of age accounting for more than half of the total refugee population,” explains ICMC’s Protection Program Manager, Georgia Swan.

ICMC’s photovoice project seeks to shine a light on and increase awareness of their untapped potential to participate in public decision-making and contribute to peace-building.

Empowering the leaders of the future

“If I were a superhero, I’d make my community listen,” says Tisneem, 16, during one group discussion. “Yes, I would too, and encourage them to accept new ideas,” adds Aya, 12.

The young people were given cameras to take home and record their lives as well as develop artistic skills, creativity and self-expression.«Through a Different Lens» features compelling photographs and stories by Syrian refugee children and youths living in Jordan. Join the book launch on Tuesday, 19 June to mark World Refugee Day 2018. Attendance is free of charge, but registration is required. Click on the picture above for more information about the event and how to register.

ICMC counselors asked participants to think about their role in the community and what they would change if they could. Counselors could then recognize unaddressed conflict-related trauma symptoms that might inhibit the participants’ ability to contribute meaningfully to society and also to provide support to increase their psychological well-being.

“There is a real need for psychological support for children and youth who suffered traumatic experiences during flight and exile,” Swan says.

“Boys are particularly at risk of mental health issues due to the likelihood of having undergone profound stress in Syria, compounded by their changed social roles, boredom and lack of opportunities in Jordan. Conversely, girls are more likely to be isolated at home with one-third reporting, according to the UN, that they ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ leave their home; they also exposed to the risks of early marriage and gender-based violence,” she adds.

Shortly after the completion of the workshops, the photos were displayed in the Mafraq town center. The exhibition provided a platform for the participants to have their voices heard and encouraged the community to discuss and reflect on the photos they had seen.

Participants in the photography workshops and their families at the exhibition in Amman, Jordan. The photo exhibitions helped generate discussion about the topics pictured in the images and empower Syrian youth by having their voices heard. A few months later, ICMC hosted another exhibition in Jordan’s capital city, Amman, which sought to raise awareness amongst the international community around issues of concern faced by youth in Mafraq. Guests were surprised to see the diverse themes that emerged from the workshops, from child marriage and gender roles to identity, friendships, safety and education.

“It’s very easy to lump these people together, particularly with regard to the narratives of psychological or political instability that unfortunately surround them. This exhibition challenges that misconception,” said one of the guests. “I did not know they would have such amazing ideas on the concept of ‘peace’ and how to achieve it. The photo ‘sharing peace’ for example tells us that peace must come first from within. We could probably all learn from that.”Forgiveness. This is my brother. He looks sad because I took the picture directly after he had pulled my hair and I felt hurt and angry with him. Later that day he shared his chips with me and we made up. I forgave him for pulling my hair because this is the best way to reach peace. (An 11-year-old project participant)

Inviting the workshop participants to attend the exhibition opening day gave them the opportunity to discuss any positive changes in their lives since completing the program.

“It was great to show my dad my work. It made him realize I have skills, interests and opinions which he otherwise wouldn’t have known about,” says Mahmoud, 15.

Based on the success of the first photovoice project, ICMC has launched the second edition. The issues raised by participants may not disappear quickly, but ICMC staff are confident that this work improves the lives of youth in Jordan.

With participants agreeing that youth should contribute to community decisions as capable actors with legitimate voices, photovoice workshops appear as a tool for empowering the leaders and decision-makers of the future. 

As Ala’a, 13, said as she left her last workshop: “We must not underestimate ourselves. We are part of something.”