ou developed and facilitated a series of workshops for displaced Syrian girls with the Another Kind of Girl Collective. How did this idea manifest and what motivated your interest in this?
I first went to Jordan as a Felsman Documentary Fellow, and my job was to conduct research with a Public Policy Fellow for a few months on Syrian refugee girls’ access to education in Jordan – in Za’atari Refugee Camp. When I arrived at Za’atari Refugee Camp, 2 years after the war had begun, over 3,500 journalists had visited the camp and reported on life there. The stories were largely tragic, and somewhat black and white. The idea behind giving the girls cameras so that they could tell their own stories, in their own voices, through their own eyes, is really what motivated the workshop. I think that the perspective we gain from the girls’ films and photography is very different from that of the mainstream media and the reporters from outside entering their world for a brief period in time.
Khaldiya, one of the young artists in the workshop, said: “I want people to know that I’m filming from my own personal perspective. I live in the camp, I am within the camp, and I know the camp. An outsider will miss a lot of the deeper meanings because they haven’t felt what it’s like to live here. I want to show the rest of the world that even though we live in a refugee camp, and have different lives from others, we still have dreams and ambitions. We are creative. We strive to rise above our limitations and work toward our dreams. I feel it’s my responsibility not just to tell the world that truth, but to let people see it for themselves.”
I have been working with teenage girls in communities around the world to equip them with the artistic and technical means to tell their own stories, through film, photo, writing, performance, etc. I love this work because I see the opportunity for storytelling and self-expression in the lives of girls and young woman as truly transformative. When I do these workshops, the motivation is not only to equip the girls with the means to express their experiences and develop their own creative language and vision, but to nurture passionate, independent, creative, civic-minded young women. For the girls who are in transitional spaces, both geographically and internally, as they transition into adulthood, the experience of narrating their worlds through film and photography is really able to transform the foreign landscape of the refugee camp and urban environs of exile into new terrain for exploration, self-discovery and self-expression. These girls find themselves in a specific circumstance – being a refugee, a female, a child – that has left them very little control over making choices about their daily lives and futures, or the ability to give voice to their desires and fears and hopes for themselves. In the face of these challenges, I see undeniable transformations happen within each girl. Taking photos and film is a way for them to articulate the sometimes unspeakable, a landscape to unfurl and imagine her future visions, and a tool with which she is able to investigate and start to ask herself and the world around her important questions.
Walaa, one of the young artists in the workshop, said: “It’s important for girls to bring things from inside to the outside. Our society often makes girls feel like they have to be ashamed of themselves, so many girls are afraid of speaking up. It’s important for them to bring these things outside because girls go through things in their lives, and so many girls are afraid of speaking up. For me, writing and filmmaking gave me courage and helped me not be afraid to tell my story to people. I hope that each young woman is able to express her inner-self directly and indirectly, and that she can just break the world. It doesn’t matter, just break it all over the place…”
I don’t see these workshops or collective as an arts therapy initiative. The process is therapeutic, yes. But the work stems from the belief that these girls are not humans that need to be worked on, but rather artists that need to work. It is the beginning of a creative life. It’s also the transition of a community of girls who have been exiled by war into a collective that has agency over their own narratives, voice and creative vision, and how to share it with the rest of the world.
Photos courtesy of Another Kind of Girl Collective and Laura Doggett, 2014.
am sure this would have been a fairly life-changing experience. What did you learn through this?
As you can imagine, I learned way more from them as they might have from me. And I love that we learn together. They taught me that in the darkest hours, of which there are many that will come and go, there is always the possibility of finding light. They taught me how to walk through seemingly unsurmountable challenges with grace, humor, honesty, huge courage and deep compassion. They taught me that light is faith, and hope is love + possibilities. They taught me that faith and hope can grow from and then grow stronger than tragedy and sorrow.
I was reminded during these workshops that it is often the girls who’ve gone through the darkest hours and most challenging circumstances in their lives who have the will to ask for more from the world. They are hungry to learn. They are hungry to make the most of the tools – creative, academic, civic – that will allow them to shape their realities into something new, that will give them a sense of purpose and self-worth, and that will provide them with real-life opportunities to make a difference in their communities through their individual and collective actions.
The way the girls supported and held each other in this moment in their lives, in the midst of their stories, and in their dreams for themselves – it constantly amazed and humbled me. Though these girls come from a place that turned blindingly dark, together they have – through perseverance and the power of supporting each other in their creativity, learning and transformation – filled their worlds with light.
Did you see some amazing transformations in the girls who were involved in the workshops?
My favorite part of working with the girls is seeing the individual transformations that happen within each of them. For this example I will focus on the filmmaker you are highlighting – Khaldiya.
When I first met Khaldiya, she was a bit shy, and also had quite a temper. She also felt like anything she did wasn’t good enough, and like she was never doing enough. She lived in a home where there was a lot of stress and the resulting behaviors. She was expected to be the main caretaker of her 7 siblings. She was in an almost constant state of stress. But when she had a camera in her hands, watching her move around camp, it was like she was in a trance. The whole world dropped away from her, and she was suddenly in this very introspective, curious and calm space. Khaldiya said “Before learning to film, I felt like there was a huge part missing in my life. The only thing that filled it for me was filming. Filming makes me feel accomplished. I used to be shy, but when I started learning how to film, and also realized that the image of a refugee camp can be distorted by portrayals by outsiders, I knew that I needed to overcome this shyness — to speak not only to the community around me, but to people in the rest of the world.”
haldiya’s film went on to screen all over the world, and has won a number of awards, and I think she is able to really witness the importance of her work and the value of her perspective. She thinks a lot about how she can make a difference in how her community is perceived:
“We’ve been here for about four years and now it just feels like this is our country. This is our home right now. I know that the situation isn’t the best but it’s better than most. I want people to know that I’m filming from my own personal perspective. I live in the camp, I am within the camp, and I know the camp. An outsider will miss a lot of the deeper meanings because they haven’t felt what it’s like to live here. I want to show the rest of the world that even though we live in a refugee camp, and have different lives from others, we still have dreams and ambitions. We are creative. We strive to rise above our limitations and work toward our dreams. I feel it’s my responsibility not just to tell the world that truth, but to let people see it for themselves.”
She thinks a lot about how she can help the girls in her own community. She wants to teach younger girls filmmaking, and also wants to start initiatives like a comedy troupe through which girls can express their stories. “I went from simple, simple Khaldiya to Khaldiya who is strong and courageous. To be honest, in our society, the girls are semi-existing. But thank god, my friends and I started to encourage and bring awareness and initiatives. Now thankfully there has been a change in our community, not a big one, but we are able to be of use. The goal for my future is for Khaldiya to be a person who makes change in the world, make it better. I would love to be a person who is important in Za’atari’s community because they really need girls who are like me and my friends. I would like to tell all the girls in the world, your dream is your right not the right of others. So keep persevering until you achieve it.”
I think how Khaldiya envisions her future, and her role in the world and her community, has shifted and grown in beautiful ways. She has become this creative, eloquent, activist, fierce female force, who still loves to laugh and play pranks, and still gets angry from time to time, but for the most part, she is an incredibly amazing young artist and woman.
“Taking photos and film is a way for them to articulate the sometimes unspeakable, a landscape to unfurl and imagine her future visions, and a tool with which she is able to investigate and start to ask herself and the world around her important questions.”
What does 2017 hold for you?
Right now, I continue to work with the girls and young women in Jordan in the Another Kind of Girl Collective. (I am going back to Jordan tomorrow in fact!) I would like to expand the collective and also work with teenaged girls in another community that’s in transition or has been displaced. I am writing proposals and looking for funding to do so now. My vision is for the Syrian girls to become mentors for the new group of girls, and that they can support and mentor each other in creating and sharing their experience of displacement – the similarities but also the unique individuality of each of their experiences – with other girls and young women in similar circumstances around the world, as well as with global audiences and intentional audiences. Intentional meaning governing and policy-making audiences, so that the girls’ ability to tell their own stories is not just a transformative process in and of itself, but that sharing their stories gives them the power to be active players in the policies that dictate their day-to-day lives and circumstances.
Favourite book? The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Favourite film? Amelie
Favourite musician / band? Stevie Wonder/Erykah Badu/Loretta Lynn
If you weren’t an artist, what would you be? A teacher, but I think I’m covering that – so for fun maybe a set designer for theater
If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be? I would want to see more individuals from different backgrounds and belief systems speaking and listening to each other as such, over an extended period of time. Breaking down barriers and stereotypes by getting to know one and other through genuine conversations about those common things in life that everyone experiences… Like love and loss. And then having those individuals decide on and carry out a project for their communities or the common good together. It’s just one piece of a bigger change that needs to happen. Revolutions and evolutions happens in so many ways, sometimes one person at a time.