Ed Kashi is a photojournalist featured in Dispatches. His photographs in "Syria's Lost Generation" are responding to the children affected by the refugee crisis. James Woody Faircloth is a co-founder of Allied Aid, a refugee aid organization.
*Photo above: A young girl enjoys a lollipop while watching shoppers in the Domiz Camp for Syrian Refugees just outside of Dohuk, Iraq on Nov. 23, 2013. Ed Kashi, Syria's Lost Generation, 2013. Image courtesy the artist and VII.
Syria's Lost Generation
By Ed Kashi
I started traveling to Syria in 1991 as part of my first project with National Geographic magazine documenting the struggle of the Kurds. I've returned a number of times for different reportages, and since the Syrian civil war tragically developed out of the hope of the Arab Spring in 2010, I've watched with disquiet and pain as this conflict became a proxy for the wars inside Syria's fragile ethnic mosaic. More than two decades after I had documented Kurdish refugees streaming back from Iran and Turkey to their fractured homeland in Iraq, I returned to the same patch of land to witness the impact of Syria's unending civil war in late 2013, to tell the story of Syria's Lost Generation.
As refugees stream across Syria's borders, we are seeing the loss of another middle class Arab population and the destabilization of another Arab, Muslim country. The youth population within this new refugee group is comprised of more than half of those four million displaced souls. What will happen to Syria's next generation? I had been there enough to know the Syrians are a calm and well educated people, used to relative security and stability, albeit under the hand of an authoritarian regime that was now firmly entrenched in their fourth decade of rule. What happens when the whole fabric of a society is blown apart, frayed not only at its edges but threatened at its very heart?
I returned to northern Iraq and Jordan to tell the stories of some of these youth. I wanted to create an intimate look into the lives of those caught in the middle, left in limbo, robbed of their childhoods.
The plight of Syria's youngest in the midst of that civil war is often overlooked, when not hidden in plain sight. At least 50,000 of the nearly 500,000 estimated deaths since 2011 are thought to be children — dead too soon but, at least, spared some of the hardships now plaguing more than 2 million Syrian youth living beyond their native borders: hunger; disease; little to no education; flashbacks or nightmares sparked by the sights and sounds of warfare; depression.
As the unimaginably brutal conflict ends its fourth year, we are witnessing one of the greatest human rights tragedies of this or any century. My work has attempted to highlight the emotional toll the war is taking on the youngest of those driven from their own country. In coordination with the International Medical Corps, I met with and filmed Syrian teenagers (and their families) profoundly rattled by the collapse of their old world and their new, unsettled life as refugees in Northern Iraq and Jordan.
My first stop was in Jordan, where I filmed a group of four teens living with their 83-year-old grandmother in the eastern desert, next to a small agricultural plot where tomatoes and zucchinis are grown. They were part of a small enclave of maybe ten families living in tents, surviving on the good graces of a local farmer but disconnected from all the aid and supplies of the giant Zaatari refugee camp, now the second largest in the world with nearly 200,000 people, and only one hour away.
This dislocated family of teens—Muna, 16, Sumaya, 15, Bilal, 14 and Lamia, 13—had first travelled to Daraa in the south and then over the border to Jordan. Their parents had made them leave their hometown of Hasakeh, Syria, to avoid rape of the girls and conscription of the boy into the military or the Free Syrian Army.
They left behind their parents and four other siblings, and I found them living in a tent. For me, this story was especially poignant. I have two teenage kids, including a 16-year-old daughter. My heart ached for the mutual loss this family was going through—the kids separated from their parents, unprotected and in limbo— and I also was in awe of their strength and adaptability. When 16-year-old Muna told us, "I wish I had not lived to see the things I saw…and my greatest fear is never seeing my parents again," everyone in the tent, including myself, my interpreter and the folks listening on the periphery, were in tears.
I also filmed people in the Domiz camp just outside of Dohuk in northern Iraq—the region where I had witnessed Kurdish refugees returning from Turkey and Iran in 1991. It was sobering to witness yet another refugee crisis 22 years later.
Here I met Jihan, 16, and her family, who had fled from Damascus over a year earlier. Beautiful, articulate, sensitive and deeply troubled from not only what she had witnessed, but by the realization that, "maybe I've lost my adolescence,"—her story powerfully articulates the plight of Syrian youth.
In one instance, while filming in Jihan's family's tent, her father made a cellphone call. I intuitively filmed close-ups of his face, and the reactions of the family. As the call progressed, I watched the faces of the kids transform from looks of concern to quiet tears. My interpreter told me later the father had just learned that a bomb had killed his neighbor's 17-year-old son.
One of them was Jihan, a 16-year-old who has lived in the Domiz refugee camp near Dohuk, Iraq, for more than two years. The surrealism of her situation—like many exiled Syrians, Jihan's middle-class family now calls a cold, dark tent in a foreign land home—and the pain of leaving others behind has changed Jihan, perhaps irreparably.
You have a young woman who became an activist as a teenager back in Damascus and who was upset with her father for leaving. She felt she should have died a martyr there rather than leave everyone. Jihan is articulate, open to discussing her and her family's struggles and eager to use her story as a platform to draw attention to what she and others are going through. Still, her anguish is clear.
Everyone handles it differently: some accept their displacement as Fate; others, like Jihan, have real trouble accepting their status as refugees. Once in the field I immediately latched onto Jihan, as well as Muna, another 16-year-old girl who, with several family members, was living in a tent in the Jordanian desert. With their testimony, she stitched together an intensely personal account of what has become a universal experience for young female refugees—a struggle that, among other challenges, includes caring for siblings and threats of sexual assault.
What will these kids grow up to be? We need to care about this if we want to stop the cycle, and if we want to have any impact on the cycle. You just have the sense that this is not going to end any time soon. Whenever that happens, it's the children who will watch the pieces of their homeland be put together again, and it's they and their own children who will have to live with however those pieces are arranged.
What I witnessed leaves no doubt in my mind that at least in northern Iraq, the expectation is that many of these folks will remain permanently and not return to Syria. The world, and specifically the Middle East, is witnessing the reformation of it's artificially made borders nearly 100 years after they were created. And it's youngest will pay the heaviest price.
By James Woody Faircloth
I am in my hometown this weekend for my 30th high school reunion. I haven't lived here for 26 years, but it's so good to be "home."
So yesterday, my mom says to me..."I would like for you to come with me...I have something to show you." We hop in her car, drive up the street and around the corner, and she pulls into Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA).
I so dreaded this place as a child. My younger self would have immediately said, "How is SECCA going to bore us today mom?!"
Instead, I just kept smiling because my Mom was excited to show me something. Now that I'm older and a lot wiser, hearing and feeling her enthusiasm alone made it worth the trip for me already.
Once inside, I was greeted by powerful reminders of familiar places and faces that I met while working with refugees in Greece. Rita Continakis, Natalie Feulner, Haley Weston Sides, Lily Kimbel and I co-founded Allied Aid try to help the people reflected in the exhibit in every way possible because we fundamentally understand that these people are just like us.
They are us.
They have been tragically affected by wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq and now find themselves in the midst of the refugee crises in Greece. They are living it. We couldn't just watch it happen to them from afar, so we went and when we were there, these people asked us to help them.
So that's what we do.
As the power of the exhibit was enveloping the deepest parts of me, and after silently apologizing to my mom and SECCA for ever doubting them, I look over and overheard my mom telling the security guard about helping with our #givewarmth campaign and all about my involvement in the crisis and how we are trying to find solutions to help people whose lives have been so profoundly changed by war. Mom looks at me and points to the security guard and says to me, "Tell her about it son."
So I open my mouth to speak and nothing comes out but blubbering crying sounds followed by tears steaming down my face. SECCA has its revenge.
The beauty of art is that words are unnecessary.
So if you're in Winston-Salem, NC anytime soon and want to truly understand how lucky we are to live the lives that we do, take a side trip to SECCA. The security guard who works on Fridays is a great hugger, and so is my mom.
Admission is free.