Despite all the commotion around her, Fatmi does not open her mouth; she looks down intently and focuses on finding the right colors for her favorite plant, jasmine. She draws them in red, blue, pink and yellow, as though making up a world where the white flower might bow to her rainbow-tinted ambitions. Just a few children away, Bachar uses a little piece of cardboard to create the setup for his own 'still life,' which he titles Meadow with house in the background. Back in Raqqa, where he came from a year ago, there is no meadow and no house left for him to live in. Everything the little boy uses for inspiration is bound by the walls of a derelict old mansion known as ‘the onion store’ and located in Al Fayda, a small town in the eastern valley of Bekaa, in Lebanon.
“I don’t remember much about Syria,” admits Fatmi, who at 12 years of age is a privileged participant in this drawing contest organized by Zakira, a Lebanese association specializing in photography projects. The prize: to let one’s imagination soar for a couple of days with a camera in one’s hands.
The heads of Zakira are working in partnership with Unicef to hand out 500 disposable cameras to Syrian children living in Lebanese refugee camps, and let them be the ones to capture their own reality of days without school, dirty socks and mattresses strewn under the plastic roofs of the tents sticking out of the mud.
“Through their drawings we evaluate their skills, their vision,” explains Usama Ayub, a photojournalist and co-founder of Zakira. “I have noticed Fatmi, with the flowers and all the paraphernalia, because her framing is very good.”
The project brings an innocent gaze to what the UN is calling the greatest refugee crisis in history
The Lahza 2 photography project seeks to bring an innocent, impartial gaze to what the United Nations is already calling the greatest refugee crisis in history. The original Lazha – which means “moment” in Arabic, reflecting the instant when the shutter clicks and captures a slice of reality – was conducted at the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, where people live in limbo with no future, no citizenship and the added burden of being blamed for sparking the country's 15-year civil war (1975-1990).
“We consider that to have been a successful project,” says Ramzi Haiddar of Zakira. “We saw positive results in the [Palestinian] children and we considered it convenient to repeat the experience with Syrian child refugees.”
“The first positive impact [with Lazha] was the communication among the children living in the camps. Although they live near each other, in the same area, they come from different backgrounds and they don’t interact; this project gave them something in common, a space to meet and communicate through the camera,” adds Haiddar.
Children are also exposed to a new tool for expressing themselves and a new discipline. The result is 500 or more images taken from a unique perspective, “different from that of a professional photographer or photojournalist.” The shots will be collected in a book and put on show in a traveling exhibition.
There are nearly 100 informal settlements scattered across Lebanon
While she waits to see her own name printed in the catalogue, Fatmi is busy trying to get the hang of the camera. She walks around with it glued to her face, merging her eye with the zoom, while people flutter around her in a bid to feature in some of her work. Bachar, who likes to climb, is already atop the highest wall in the area in search of a good panoramic shot.
Al Fayda is just one of 33 camps that the association has visited in Bekaa alone. There are still more in the north and south of Lebanon, and around Beirut and Mount Lebanon. In total nearly 100 informal settlements that the government refuses to describe as refugee camps exist. Three years of civil warfare in Syria have produced nearly one million displaced persons in the country. Nearly half of these are children, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
“I like Lebanon,” says Fatmi. “We play a lot with friends, especially hide and seek.”
Hiba Shaaban, a volunteer worker at Zakira, coordinates play activities for the kids at the camps. “Every day we go to a camp; first we give children paper and crayons, and the under-sevens [who do not take part in the photography project] get coloring books. Sometimes we dance, sing and spend time together. If we have special cases we try to help if we can. At the end of the day we give them a package with clothes: a jacket, socks, shoes.”
“We have come across children who know nothing about their families,” says Haiddar. “At one point they got lost and now they live with other people.” ACNUR estimates there are around 3,500 child refugees without parents in Lebanon, where an alarming number of malnutrition cases has been detected. In a September report, Unicef called it “a silent threat” linked to “poor hygiene, unclean drinking water, diseases, lack of immunization and inappropriate eating practices.”
“Photography is not achieving the necessary impact on people, or we would not keep entering into wars”
Haiddar, who began his career by capturing the war in his own country, admits that his dedication to Zakira and Lahza is “a reconciliation with myself.”
“Photography is not achieving the necessary impact on people, because if we were really affected by those images, we would not enter into wars again and again, the world would not be full of wars,” he adds.“People simply look at the images and then discard them.”
At the Al Fayda camp, however, it is the children who do the shooting. “They’ve been deprived of all rights, they come here scared, and in some cases they are living in terror,” says Haiddar. “Of course these children need more than a camera, but this is all we can do for them.”