Focus on freedom: An insider’s eye on refugees

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Updated 29 July 2018
  • Many feel that it’s going to be hopeless with the strict border control in EU states
  • Lebanon hosts more than a million Syrian refugees, more than a quarter of its population

JEDDAH: The world has grown all too accustomed to seeing images of refugees in crisis, but one asylum seeker has turned the camera around, showing a glimmer of hope and painting a different picture.

Abdulazez Dukhan and his family made their way across the Aegean Sea with one thing on their minds — to live in peace. His story is an example of thousands of other successful refugee stories.
Dukhan left Homs in 2014 at the age of 15, crossing to Turkey, where he went to high school. A little over 18 months later, the family moved to Greece, joining many refugees seeking a new life in Europe.
Staying on the island of Chios, then moving to Eko and Idomeni camps in northern Greece after a short stay in Athens, the family of six became a family of seven when Dukhan’s niece was born. Their papers were submitted to the UNHCR resettlement program and the family were placed in Belgium in the summer of 2017.
Speaking to Arab News from Belgium now, Dukhan tells his story with ease, saying that if success can find him, it can find others, through perseverance and faith.
“It all started at Eko Station camp,” he said of the makeshift facility at a gas station near the Greek-Macedonian border. “I didn’t speak English at all. Given the situation back home, it didn’t do me much good. I only got by with a few words. After taking some classes in Turkey, I wanted to learn more, and soon found myself alongside the volunteers at the station, learning and helping at the same time.
“I befriended the volunteers, joined them in their projects and helped out whenever and however I could,” Dukhan said. “They soon trusted me, and my confidence in perceiving the language grew. I became an unofficial interpreter for a project that helped pregnant and new mothers at the station.”
Working as a volunteer, Dukhan gave back to a community that was hungry for help. He befriended an Italian volunteer, growing more confident every day with his speaking skills, and became an asset to the foreign volunteers.
To thank him for his efforts, the Italian woman offered him a gift, but Dukhan refused. “I didn’t do it for anything in return. I was living the same difficult times as all of the refugees there,” he said.
The woman was adamant, and two weeks later he relented and suggested a small pocket camera to document and keep memories for a later time. Dukhan was elated to receive the gift, and became aware of its possibilities.
“No one in the outside world had an inkling as to what was happening inside, except through the media,” he said. “I had other ideas. The camera came at a perfect time. I wanted to document from the inside. I felt a pull and wanted to do something for the community that I was forced to be a part of all of a sudden.”
A week after receiving the camera, while Dukhan was sitting in a small Internet cafe near the station discussing the images on his tiny camera screen with fellow volunteers, an idea came — a Facebook page called “Through Refugee Eyes.”
“It wasn’t planned, but seeing how the images on the camera screen were real and untouched, the idea behind documenting the reality of the camps was now available for all to see,” he said.
“I was always inquisitive,” he said. “I wanted to know everything about everything around me. After receiving my high school diploma in Turkey, I took any workshop I could find. I took one photography class, for the purpose of learning about Photoshop, not photography. I was the only one without a camera in the whole workshop. The rest was history.”
The pictures are simple, but hold considerable depth. Each image draws an emotion, telling a tale: The silence of a young child looking out into a field, the eerie calmness that surrounds the row of tents in a hangar, the mischievous eyes of a toddler, the worried look of a father’s face, the peace in the wrinkled face of an elderly woman, the pure enjoyment of the rain falling on a child’s head, the concentration of a lute player, swaying to the music.

As the Facebook page gained followers, Dukhan became more of an activist. Hundreds of comments and messages were posted on the page, and people began to volunteer in Greece because they saw his photos. One Spanish volunteer wanted to help Dukhan and started planning a surprise with his brother. A group of volunteers gave him what is considered one of the best digital cameras, a Nikon D600, as a birthday gift to allow him to continue his work.

“It had a major change in my life,” Dukhan said. “The camera was my companion at all times. I took to the streets of the camp, not sure anyone would smile to the camera, but after easing their tension and speaking to them about my project, a hint of a smile would appear.”

For months, while Dukhan was living and volunteering at Camp Idomeni, he focused on portraits and documenting everyday life. Life was calmer after moving to Thessaloniki when the camp was closed. One day, a German photographer messaged Dukhan on his page and said: “I’m sending you my Canon 6D.”

“I didn’t understand the magnitude of the pictures I was posting of the refugees until then,” Dukhan said. “Our time in Greece was one of the worst in our lives and yet my time there and volunteering changed it 180 degrees. My English is better, I became knowledgeable in medical terminology due to my time volunteering with the Syrian American Medical Society, I became a photographer and activist all within the space of a year. The amount of good that came out of the hardest times turned out to be blessing from the Almighty.”

Now living with his family in Belgium, Dukhan has endured some difficult times. For the first few months, he stayed at a government housing facility while they awaited their papers. After receiving them, he had to repeat his high school years, learn a new language and was the only Syrian and Arab in his school. But he managed to divide his time between his studies and photography, and another project blossomed — a series of short videos called “One minute, meet a refugee.”

Dukhan has not forgotten his time in Greece. There is a connection that cannot be severed, as only a refugee can understand those who have experienced similar hardships. This summer, he is back in Greece to continue his projects, dividing his time between Lesbos and Athens.

“Many feel that it’s going to be hopeless with the strict border control in EU states, but you hear whispers here and there of a family moving on, resettling and making a new life somewhere new,” he said.
“These are what keep refugees’ hopes up. It happened to my family; it will happen to the rest as well.”


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