Photographer Elena Dorfman turns her lens on the despondent lives of Syrian refugee teenagers.
Hany, age 19, angular, mop of black hair, sits in three-quarter profile, eyeglasses and cellphone beside him, a faraway look in his eyes. Dua’a, 15, crouches in a meadow full of yellow wildflowers, scattered buildings on a hill in the background. I’tmad, 19, in a purple-and-white headscarf, gazes pensively downward. She and a dreamy-eyed younger sister, Iman, 17, were living in one room, along with eight family members, in an apartment building in Lebanon that held 700 refugees, when Los Angeles-based photographer Elena Dorfman caught them, and another dozen or so teenage Syrian refugees, on camera and audio recorder beginning in 2013.
The portraits and video that Dorfman took as she traveled through the Middle East comprise “Elena Dorfman: Syria’s Lost Generation,” an exhibition organized by the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University and now on display at the Mills College Art Museum in Oakland, admission free. (A related exhibit of Syrian-American artist Diana Al-Hadid’s sculptures and paintings accompanies this exhibit.)
When the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reached out to Dorfman, she initially turned down the assignment, which was created to raise awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis. She’d started her career as documentarian and had been a portrait photographer as well for many years—her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Time and elsewhere—but most recently she had been focusing on landscapes. Yet she reconsidered overnight. “I’m a person who likes being out in the world,” she says. “I find the studio stifling. I took a step back from: ‘I do this kind of work, not that kind of work.’ I knew it was an opportunity that would probably never come again.”
She moved to Beirut.
And she decided to concentrate on teenage refugees. Adolescence is difficult in the best of circumstances, and she was moved by the plight of the Syrian in-betweeners, old enough to know what was going on but without access to the kinds of support programs available to adults and small children. “These kids are silently suffering,” she says.
To identify willing subjects to photograph and interview, she used various means: Some were referred by the UNHCR, others she met as she traveled through Kurdistan, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. Many refused her request; they felt vulnerable and shy. Boys of draft age feared if the Syrian army saw their images, they’d be in serious trouble, as they’d fled conscription. So Tarak, for example, is seen slumped in a chair, face covered with a black scarf except for his eyes; Tamer hides his face from the camera; all you can see of Hamada is his body and the back of his head.
Girls, too, hesitated. “A lot of Muslim women are not supposed to be heard or recorded,” Dorfman explains. (All her portraits are of Muslims; although she was hoping for more diversity, she could not find Christians, a persecuted minority, who were willing to speak.) While she talked to sisters Iman and I’tmad, their little brother watched at the window to make sure no men were around. “When people [migrate], they don’t feel safe, and they’re not particularly welcome,” observes Dorfman. “These kids are very brave.”
She prepared a set of questions with the help of a translator and others and then met with the teens, spending a lot of initial time talking to them and their families. Meeting places were arranged in advance; Dorfman took the photos where they met: on the street, in a community center, in a tent in a refugee camp, in an orchard, in an abandoned shopping mall. Most did not want to go outside, but she photographed Bathoul, for example, leaning back against what looks like a wall of rock near the front door of the windowless cement shell where she lived with her large family. “A lot of people don’t have an apartment so they live wherever there’s a space they can fit,” says Dorfman.
Most of the exiles had fled Syria with nothing and spent their days trying to find food and work, even clothes, watching their siblings or just killing time. Bathoul, who once wanted to be an architect, has no phone, no internet access and doesn’t know what happened to her friends, Dorfman writes in a caption. Farman, in a refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, spends most days in the room he shares with three friends, unable to find work.
“When I arrived in early 2013,” says Dorfman, “the war had already been going on for two years. Everyone was saying, ‘It’s temporary.’” But by the end of the project (which took 10 months) people knew they would not be going home any time soon—if indeed, any still had a home to go to. The Syrian conflict, a global disaster, has taken more than 470,000 lives and created 6.5 million refugees.
“I had no experience with refugees before,” Dorfman told Monica Ramirez-Montagut, the exhibit curator at Newcomb Art Museum. “I had never been in a refugee camp or seen people in such dire circumstances. You know, sometimes I didn’t want to see it. Sometimes it was too much.”
With one exception, Dorfman has lost contact with her photographic subjects. “It’s hard to keep track—they move,” she explains. But she is in almost daily touch with Hany. He speaks English and, says Dorfman, when she met him on multiple visits to the tented settlement in Lebanon where he was living, she saw he was “a bright, shining star.” He and his four siblings are legally blind. He’d had his first poem published when he was seven. He told Dorfman he missed “drinking coffee with the birds.” “He’s a poet and a genius of a guy,” says Dorfman. He’d assured her that although he’d lost his country, he hadn’t lost his mind, heart or spirit.
Dorfman’s portraits, Hany’s among them, have been published and seen in various exhibits nationwide. In part because of that exposure, Hany and his family were relocated to Saskatchewan, where Hany was chosen for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Youth Council. “I wish I had more stories of kids who got out and are doing well, but I don’t,” says Dorfman.
The Syrians she photographed “feel like they don’t have a voice,” she says. “Nobody’s asking. I think they really wanted to speak. They felt they had some importance for a moment.”