Mak­ing a dif­fer­ence

Le­banese pho­to­jour­nal­ist Ramzi Haidar en­cour­ages young refugees to tell their story through a lens.

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In one photo, a young girl wear­ing a pink sweat­shirt and sunny yel­low hi­jab leans com­fort­ably on the side of a build­ing, look­ing con­fi­dently at the cam­era held by her friend. In an­other, two sis­ters stroll bare­foot along a muddy un­paved street, the crum­bling ru­ins of a build­ing vis­i­ble in the back­ground.

These snap­shots – glimpses of life in­side Pales­tinian refugee camps in Le­banon – are two of the many mov­ing im­ages fea­tured in the eye­open­ing pho­tog­ra­phy book, Lahza.

The book was the re­sult of the 2007 Lahza project, which aimed to bring art and cul­ture to chil­dren at Pales­tinian refugee camps.

The project also rep­re­sents the birth of vol­un­teer or­gan­i­sa­tion Zakira, whose pri­mary goal is to pro­mote the value of pho­tog­ra­phy and im­ages in gen­eral in so­ci­ety. Since the pub­li­ca­tion of the book, Zakira (which means ‘mem­ory’ in Ara­bic) has un­der­taken sev­eral more projects to im­prove the lives of dis­placed chil­dren through pho­tog­ra­phy. It all be­gan when pho­to­jour­nal­ist Ramzi Haidar was on as­sign­ment in Iraq in 2003 dur­ing the Amer­i­can in­va­sion and found him­self con­cerned by the lack of cre­ative out­lets in the lives of the chil­dren he came across. Then, on re­turn­ing home to Le­banon, Haidar found a par­al­lel in the lives of chil­dren in his coun­try’s Pales­tinian refugee camps. (Nes­tled in lit­tle pock­ets of con­tem­po­rary Le­banon, the refugee camps house a por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion who fled or were ex­pelled from Pales­tine in 1948. Un­able to re­turn to their coun­try and with re­stric­tions lim­it­ing their in­te­gra­tion into the Le­banese state and so­ci­ety, many have only the camps to call home.)

Haidar de­cided to build on his pro­fes­sional knowl­edge to launch an ini­tia­tive ad­dress­ing the cre­ative void he had wit­nessed. The project, Lahza – mean­ing ‘mo­ment’ or ‘glimpse’ – saw a team of jour­nal­ists, artists, pho­tog­ra­phers and other vol­un­teers work­ing with 500 chil­dren be­tween the ages of seven and 12 who had been selected based on their artis­tic skill in a draw­ing ex­er­cise.

The first part of the project took place in a class­room set­ting where groups of 40 chil­dren were given dis­pos­able cam­eras – for most, a first – and taught how to use them. They were also in­structed in the ba­sics of pho­tog­ra­phy, such as fo­cus and sub­ject se­lec­tion.

The chil­dren, from 12 Pales­tinian refugee camps in Le­banon, were en­cour­aged to take snap­shots of the places, people and ac­tiv­i­ties that rep­re­sented their daily lives.

Over the next year the chil­dren took thou­sands of pho­tos, each giv­ing a rare glimpse of life in­side the camps. “It was eye-open­ing to see nor­mal life un­fold in such dif­fi­cult con­di­tions,” says Haidar. “The pho­tos speak vol­umes. Liv­ing in the camps as refugees kept them largely iso­lated from the people and the en­vi­ron­ment of the out­side world so the cam­era be­came a means to over­come cer­tain bound­aries, shat­tered pre­con­ceived ideas, re­vealed their daily ex­pe­ri­ences and kin­dled their need for shar­ing.”

Many of the pho­tos have been ex­hib­ited around Europe and the Mid­dle East and 140 of them were cho­sen to be pub­lished in the book

Hun­dreds of copies have been

Lahza. sold world­wide (it’s avail­able on Ama­

Haidar was able to get a va­ri­ety of spon­sors on board, from lo­cal photo stu­dios to re­gional pub­lish­ers and Pales­tinian cul­tural or­gan­i­sa­tions. He sought to pro­vide a con­struc­tive cre­ative out­let for these chil­dren to fun­nel their frus­tra­tion, while also equip­ping them with a skill that could be use­ful later, in their ca­reers.

With the suc­cess of the Lahza project, Haidar was able to fund a sec­ond ini­tia­tive in 2009, en­ti­tled Ma Baad el Lahza, mean­ing ‘af­ter Lahza’. This fol­low-up project tar­geted teenage chil­dren, and mixed Pales­tini­ans from refugee camps with Le­banese from out­side the camps.

The par­tic­i­pants, some of whom had worked on the first Lahza project, came from a va­ri­ety of back­grounds, with a pref­er­ence for those who had dropped out of ed­u­ca­tion, in var­i­ous re­gions of Le­banon.

Though gen­er­ally teens liv­ing in­side and out­side of refugee camps have lit­tle in­ter­ac­tion with each other, they all face a sim­i­lar strug­gle with high dropout rates from school, ris­ing fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties and dwin­dling ca­reer prospects within a strug­gling econ­omy. Haidar hoped

the project would en­cour­age a di­a­logue be­tween refugees and the Le­banese youth, thus clos­ing, or at least nar­row­ing, the gap be­tween them. All com­mu­ni­ties within Le­banon are fam­ily-ori­ented and close-knit, there­fore em­pow­er­ing young­sters also af­fects their fam­i­lies and other com­mu­nity mem­bers pos­i­tively, says Haidar.

“We did not ex­pe­ri­ence prob­lems be­tween the dif­fer­ent groups. Some­times it took time to break the ice but other­wise they en­joyed in­tro­duc­ing one an­other to their worlds. They took their class­mates to their neigh­bour­hoods to take pic­tures. So they of­ten vis­ited places they other­wise wouldn’t and any pre­con­ceived stig­mas of­ten eroded,” re­calls Haidar.

Each work­shop lasted for about three months, with classes fo­cus­ing on the the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy us­ing dig­i­tal cam­eras.

In­ter­na­tional spon­sors, such as the Nor­we­gian Em­bassy, came on board this project af­ter the suc­cess of Lahza. Prof­its were both rein­vested into Zakira and in­vested into com­mu­nity projects such as a play­ground and li­brary.

In April 2012, Zakira launched an­other ini­tia­tive, ti­tled Rua’a or ‘vi­sions’. This work­shop aimed to bridge the gap not just be­tween Le­banese and Pales­tinian youth, but also with Egyp­tian, Iraqi and Su­danese com­mu­ni­ties found in Le­banon. “Within the Mid­dle East re­gion there are in­nu­mer­able nu­ances in lan­guage, cul­ture and tra­di­tions, which of­ten cre­ate di­vi­sions through their per­ceived for­eign­ness,” says Haidar. “I wanted to help bridge this gap.”

The work­shop taught 80 youth aged 14 to 18 about pho­to­graphic the­ory and prac­tice, while con­tin­u­ing Zakira’s mis­sion to in­stil co­op­er­a­tion and tol­er­ance by en­abling par­tic­i­pants to learn to­gether and see the com­mon­al­i­ties in their in­di­vid­ual back­grounds.

Funded by the Span­ish Agency for In­ter­na­tional Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment and in part­ner­ship with Cives Mundi, the Gen­eral Union of Pales­tinian-Women and the Le­banese NGO In­san, the work­shop lasted six months and par­tic­i­pants’ work was later ex­hib­ited in both Le­banon and Spain.

In Fe­bru­ary 2013, Zakira changed its fo­cus from the youth to adults. In its next ini­tia­tive, ti­tled

Al Nouzha, or ‘out­ing’, it ad­dressed women in­car­cer­ated in the Bar­bar Khazen prison.

The ini­tia­tive in­volved around 80 women who were jailed for small crimes with sen­tences of a few years or less. By run­ning a pho­tog­ra­phy work­shop for the in­mates, Zakira de­vel­oped the women’s tech­ni­cal and in­ter­per­sonal skills.

“En­abling these women to pho­to­graph their lives pro­vided them with a voice and an out­let to ex­press them­selves,” he says.

“It’s some­thing Zakira hopes will be pos­i­tive to their psy­cho­log­i­cal well-be­ing and to their lives once they leave prison.”

The pho­to­graphs taken were dis­played in Beirut and helped de­mys­tify prison life to those out­side the prison walls.

Zakira’s var­i­ous ini­tia­tives have last­ing ef­fects on both par­tic­i­pants and view­ers. In a coun­try such as Le­banon, whose so­cial fab­ric is so

del­i­cately com­posed of var­i­ous so­cial, re­li­gious and eth­nic groups, in­di­vid­u­als tend to stay within the con­fines of their in­di­vid­ual com­mu­ni­ties.

Zakira’s ini­tia­tives are ex­er­cises in tol­er­ance, un­der­stand­ing and com­pas­sion, build­ing ca­ma­raderie and break­ing bar­ri­ers be­tween in­di­vid­u­als from com­mu­ni­ties who might other­wise never in­ter­act. By fo­cus­ing on the youth, Zakira hopes to break the cy­cle of di­vi­sion within Le­banese so­ci­ety and ini­ti­ate last­ing change in gen­er­a­tions to come.

Fur­ther­more, equip­ping stu­dents with ca­reer skills pro­vides hope for greater eco­nomic sta­bil­ity. As Haidar says, “We have seen a tan­gi­ble dif­fer­ence in many of our stu­dents. The cam­era gave many a great sense of con­fi­dence and an abil­ity to take in and ab­sorb their sur­round­ings dif­fer­ently.

“Some of our stu­dents have been able to trans­late the skill into a ca­reer. One of our stu­dents had pho­tos pub­lished in a Le­banese na­tional news­pa­per. Oth­ers have got jobs at stu­dios near their homes. The par­tic­i­pants cer­tainly feel em­pow­ered, and sort of proud, through the cam­era... they feel they have fi­nally been given a voice.”

Zakira’s ini­tia­tives also reach view­ers of the photo ex­hi­bi­tions. Though not ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the work­shops first-hand, these view­ers still get a glimpse into the lives of other com­mu­ni­ties and see the co­op­er­a­tion be­tween chil­dren who, as Haidar de­scribes, “would other­wise have lit­tle op­por­tu­nity to have an or­ganic, shared ex­pe­ri­ence.” This cause-and-ef­fect re­la­tion­ship be­tween co­op­er­a­tion and ac­com­plish­ment pro­vides hope and pos­i­tiv­ity for gen­er­a­tions in the fu­ture.

Al­though first in­spired more than 10 years ago by the chil­dren of a dif­fer­ent con­flict, Zakira’s mis­sion is as rel­e­vant as ever even to­day. The or­gan­i­sa­tion, in con­junc­tion with Unicef, is cur­rently work­ing with 500 chil­dren liv­ing in Syr­ian refugee camps through­out Le­banon and start­ing a project sim­i­lar to Lahza, en­ti­tled Lahza 2.

The most mov­ing pho­tos will be dis­played in an ex­hi­bi­tion.

Haidar and all of Zakira’s sup­port­ers hope that in­creased aware­ness will lead to more out­side sup­port and in­ter­nal com­pas­sion for these com­mu­ni­ties.

Haidar founded Zakira with the be­lief that each child de­serves to have a voice. From the ev­i­dence so far, the re­sults of these ini­tia­tives have done just that, en­abling their lives and how they live them to be shown to the rest of the world, while em­pow­er­ing them in the process.

Reach­ing out to those in the most need of help, Zakira il­lus­trates the story of a more peace­ful Le­banon, one pho­to­graph at a time.

Chil­dren in the ini­tia­tives have a say in which of their pho­tos will be pub­lished

The Lahza project used cam­eras to bridge gaps in so­ci­ety

Pic­tures from the Lahza project were ex­hib­ited in Europe and in the Mid­dle East

Haidar gives chil­dren lessons in pho­tog­ra­phy

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