Refugee camp children “escape” through imagination and photography

by Amelia Wong | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 9 June 2014 09:21 GMT

Walla Draz, eight years old is one of the 6 children who participated in the project. Photographed at the exhibition of “Gaza: Through the eyes of Children”, held in Gaza on the 18 July 2012. Asmaa Seba

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Belgian photographer teaches children who have lost their families to war to express sadness and loss through photography

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Asmaa Seba’s first trip to Gaza was as a photographer with a Belgian humanitarian delegation in 2009. She knew nothing of Gaza beyond media coverage, which focused on the political situation, and she was struck by the reality on the ground.

She encountered people who had lost their homes and family members to Israeli rocket attacks and had effectively become refugees in their homeland.

Seba decided to use her skills to help traumatised children living in U.N. refugee camps, and returned to Gaza independently to run a photography project for children.

Here, Seba describes her work with six children over a period of three months and the photographs produced by the children, featured in an exhibition called “Gaza: Through the eyes of Children”, which has been shown throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Q: Prior to this project did you have any exposure to working in refugee camps or with traumatized children?

A: I’d never worked as a photographer with refugee children before and certainly not with children from parts of the world where war, violence and poverty are all around.

Our ignorance about Palestine is so immense - like thinking that this place is full of terrorists and sad people. On the contrary I found people full of humor, who love life and live it to the fullest; people who still hope for a better future for their children.

Q: How did you go about identifying the children who took part in the project?

A: After my first visit to Gaza, I kept in contact with a teacher who introduced me to a psychologist, who agreed to collaborate with me on the project.

She helped me choose some of the children as she was already working with them.

Each one of the children received a camera, and they had to keep the camera with them all the time. Some children were even sleeping with it in their hands, like something you cherish so much you don’t want to let anyone touch it. After one month of "training", we decided to give them subjects to shoot.

We started with common subjects like school, friends and the sea, but then I decided to ask them to take pictures of the environment they were living in and of how they spend their time in the refugee camp and what they do there.

I started to notice that the pictures they were bringing back were a way to express their sadness about living there. The pictures were depicting only the grey walls, the garbage and nothing else. So I decided to take one step further and asked them to put into image the subject of family. That was the most difficult part for them, as they brought back only a few pictures and for two of them nothing at all.

Walla, who witnessed the loss of both of her parents and three of her siblings (she and her brother were the only survivors) came back with pictures of her and her brother praying at their parents’ grave. She asked me to go with them (the following) week. She started talking about how she was missing her mom and cried. It was the first time I’d ever seen her cry. She was 7 years old and acted like a mother to her brother.

Mutassim, who saw an Israeli sniper shoot his father, mother and brother, came back with a photograph of a big family portrait that he detached from his bedroom wall. He told me he decided to take the portraits off the wall, because… he couldn’t have a shot about them as they were dead. He’d realized that they would never come back to hug him. It’s at that moment that I truly believed that my work as a photographer was starting to be like a catalyst and somehow helping them just talk about their emotions.

Q: In your experience, what kind of direct impact does art therapy provide for traumatised people? Should art therapy programs be provided as part of the funding model to all refugee camps around the world?

A: I do believe that art programmes should be used more in refugee camps to help people, especially children, firstly because they can use their imagination and get mentally out of the camp, which most of the time is like a prison to them.

Some children who never spoke about what they saw or experienced during the war, were explaining… why it was important to them to show details of a reality they were living in and expressing a certain feeling of anger, sadness or joy.

It’s not only about being an artist using cameras to give to kids. It takes time and a lot of effort. I think it’s easier when the artist speaks the local language and understands the social and political situation on the ground.

I do believe that art can help people express themselves, to get beyond the silence and talk.

Art is a universal language, photography is a language anyone can understand and use.

Q: What advice would you offer other artists or photographers who are interested in working with art therapy or with refugee communities? 

A: Working with children is more difficult than working with adults. I wasn’t prepared emotionally to bear witness to the huge trauma they’d been through.

It was also the first time for me to be in a place where death is all around all the time. People there would never say, “see you tomorrow”, because they don’t know if they will be targeted by a bomb or an F-16 (fighter aircraft).

They also need to keep in mind to be open to what they will see or hear. Living in a refugee camp is difficult, people there struggle all the time because of poverty, lack of hygiene, density of the people.

Refugees from any country can’t project themselves into the future because they don’t know if they will be able to get back to their country, their families.

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