Khawla had never used a camera before arriving at a refugee camp in northern Iraq, now her images tell a story of Yazidis in exile
In August 2014, Khawla was one of over 400,000 Yazidis who fled their homes as Islamic State swept through northern Iraq. Trapped in Sinjar as the militants advanced, hundreds of Yazidi men were executed and thousands of women and children enslaved.
Khawla managed to escape to a refugee camp near Duhok in northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region. After spending her first few months in the camp trying to finish her final year of studies with “no schools, no books, no teachers,” she enrolled on a new course offered by the U.N.’s children’s agency UNICEF.
Devised by photographer Shayda Hessami, the two month course taught them photography skills both as a way to help them express themselves, and as a route to employment. Less than a year after the start of their training, four of the initial participants were exhibiting their work at a conference on the Yazidi’s plight held at the American University of Iraq in Sulaymaniyah.
Though now an accepted feature of life in the Khanke refugee camp, the project initially faced opposition from the Yazidi community. Tired of the constant questioning of the international media, people in the camp were reluctant to endorse yet more journalistic interference.
But opinion began to shift as Hessami explained the benefits of having their stories told from within their own society: “When a Yazidi woman stands before a Yazidi photographer who shares the same language and culture, they can feel and understand the little details of their lives, traumas and difficulties more than others,” Hessami said by email.
Presenting a series of photos documenting life in the Khanke camp were Khawla, 21, Zina, 20, and Manal, 20. Though glad to be exhibiting their photos to an international audience, it has not been an easy journey for the young photographers.
Wearing traditional Yazidi dress and a digital camera around her neck, Zina said that taking up photography had been difficult “because we don’t have a culture of imaging in our Yazidi society, and most girls aren’t involved in business.”
Despite these obstacles, the girls share a conviction that they are uniquely placed to tell the story of the Yazidis. Khawla was told by the family of one of her subjects that had she not been a Yazidi girl, they wouldn’t have allowed their story to be told.
“If a foreign person came to the camp, and went into a tent, that family can’t tell that foreigner everything about their suffering,” she said.
Manal, who has been learning photography for nearly two years, believes the suffering they have experienced is crucial to their work. “We know our feelings; others don’t. No one can deliver our stories to the world better than us.”
Since taking part in the initial training course, the three young women have gone on to help train another 12 Yazidi girls, and are hoping to gain work as professional photojournalists.
Photography training delivered by Z Agency for Media and Art and supported by the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation,Unicef and RDO (Research and Development Organisation).
(Reporting by Tristan Martin and Anna Martin. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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