BEIRUT– A Beirut-based NGO has already trained more than 1000 children in Lebanon’s refugee camps providing them with basic photography skills and a new vision for their future.
The idea of getting children to photograph camp life struck Lebanese photojournalist Ramzi Haidar while on assignment in Iraq in 2003.
Zakira, an all-volunteer organization devoted to the promotion of photography in Lebanon, has already carried out three projects targeting refugee children: `Lahza’, which means “glimpse” or “moment” in Arabic, and the sequels, ‘After Lahza’ and ‘Lahza 2’.
“We treat all children alike, regardless of their country of origin. Our projects are about ensuring their right to live as normal a life as possible,” Haidar told the Baltic Review in Beirut.
Zakira started by conducting workshops in Palestinian camps across Lebanon teaching 500 young children basic photography skills. Youngsters were given disposable cameras and asked to photograph camp life.
By looking at some of the photos it is hard to believe that they have been clicked by children as young as 5 years old. The photos give us access to hidden corners of refugee camps, revealing glimpses of personal and collective lives.
Some 450,000 Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA in Lebanon, with many living in the country’s 12 refugee camps. Palestinians make up nearly 10 percent of Lebanon’s population of about 4.2 million, but most still live in camps and suffer from poverty, overcrowding, unemployment, poor housing conditions and lack of infrastructure.
“I am not happy at the sight of their living conditions; children should be allowed to live a normal life,” Haidar said.
The follow-up project, ‘After Lahza’, represented an opportunity for the Palestinian community inside the camps to engage with the wider Lebanese one on the outside. More than 250 teenagers – Lebanese and Palestinians – have gained advanced photography skills at three-month workshops across the country.
The experience allowed participants between the age of 13 and 19 to overcome stereotypes. Some young Lebanese used to perceive camps as areas of violence and lawlessness. Similarly, Palestinians feared the contact with Lebanese citizens. The camera thus carried a deeper significance in their hands – photography brought people together.
Trainings were offered to young people who have quit school. For some of these youngsters it represented a break in a life with limited job opportunities. One participant had several photos published in a Lebanese newspaper, while another began to work as the official photographer for events in the camps where he lives.
According to Haidar, if conditions in Palestinian refugee camps are Spartan; life is even harder for the 1.1 million Syrians currently living in informal settlements.
“Palestinian refugees live a relatively organized life, most children were born in Lebanon; they go to school and receive support from several organizations, whereas Syrians are ‘new refugees’ and still lack security,” he explained.
According to a UNHCR report published on August 25, with the number of Syrians fleeing their country on the rise, Lebanon has become the largest per-capita recipient of refugees in the world. Zakira in cooperation with the United Nations Children’s Fund – UNICEF – came to the forefront with ‘Lahza 2′.
“Children from Syria, in particular, have been exposed to a lot of violence, cameras have been used as a tool to partly compensate for what they have missed,” Haidar explained.
Zakira provided 500 Syrian refugee children basic training in photography before leaving them with their five hundred cameras to record their daily lives and to encourage their creative impulses.
“The kids themselves did not expect to receive attention or care, through their cameras they could communicate between themselves and with the world,” Haidar added. The project, which is about to end, lasted for six months and the trainees were chosen from five major refugee areas in Lebanon.
“Lebanese people have responded very positively to the projects. The evidence is the high number of volunteers from different backgrounds who participated to the initiative. Furthermore, during winter time, people donated clothes and blankets to our organization which were then distributed to Syrian refugees,” he said.
“Since we have established a relationship with many of those children and communities, we will continue to support them,” he concluded.
For more information: Zakira – The Image Festival