Ali is 6 years old. He and his family fled Syria in 2012, shortly after the initial uprising. Ali has little recollection of his home or of what a “normal” life is. He and his seven family members have been living in an informal, makeshift tent camp with five other families. He wears a shirt that speaks of some cruel irony. It is one of two shirts that he owns and was donated to him at some point in his journey out of Syria. (Photo by Maranie Rae Stabb/PublicSource)

The Instagram post mentioning my name showed portraits of Syrian refugee children; they were familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. These were the children whom I had met and photographed while working in the Zaatari refugee camp last year. But in this photo there were Xs spray-painted across each of their faces. It was an image taken at the “Displaced” exhibition presented during the Three Rivers Arts Festival under the Fort Duquesne Bridge on the Pittsburgh riverfront. Someone had vandalized the photographs, carefully defacing each of the children’s faces.

I was in a friend’s apartment in Iraq when I learned what had happened. Covered in dust and dried sweat, I had just returned from a day working in West Mosul. I am writing this from Iraq, where I have been for the past three weeks partnering with medical organizations and NGOs and working independently to collect stories and take photographs. It’s here in West Mosul that Iraqi and coalition forces fight to retake the city from Daesh (ISIS).

I’ve worked in several camps for internally displaced persons and with a group whose mission is to mitigate harm to civilians in conflict zones. I’ve listened to the stories of those who have lived under Daesh control, who have lost family and friends, who have seen death and destruction and have been forced to survive on flour and water for months at a time. I have witnessed someone die in front of me — a girl named Zeinab; she was a victim of an airstrike, and I saw the effects her death had on her family as they were told, “She didn’t make it.” But amid destruction and despair, there is resilience and hope of these same people who, in the face of such hardship and adversity, have shown me, a foreigner in their land, nothing but warmth and generosity, and who only look ahead to the work of rebuilding their city.

As I studied the vandalized images, my emotions quickly went from anger to disappointment to sadness.


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