Taking Notice: 4Days4Syria

Syrian children refugees

To take notice: To observe or become aware of what is happening

Is there a good reason to turn away from the terrible, sad news of the world -- the earthquake, the political strife, or the most recent civil war? There are many … such news is upsetting, it might make us feel impotent, or it might stir up our own trauma of a similar experience. These are all valid reasons to turn our gaze away. But, there are also important reasons to turn our attention to a crisis. There are also ways that can make such a turning toward, rather than a turning away from, possible. In this short summary of the 4Days4Syria that took place February 8th to 11th, 2016, we would like to share with you what made the noticing possible and what, as a community, we actually took notice of.

What did we look at and what did we notice?

We looked at sixteen documentary photographs taken by Hajir Sharifi, a York student and active journalist who spent the spring / summer months of 2015 in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Hajir is a third-year Human Rights and Equity Studies major, activist, member of PEN writers-in-exile group and translated author of two books.

Hajir travelled back to Kurdish Iraq to explore the situation of Kurdish and Syrian refugees. These refugees had found relative safety in the emergency camps run by the humanitarian organization Medicins sans Frontieres and others. The camps were Arbat (Sulaaimany), Bahraka (Arbil), Domiz (Dohuk), Khanke (Dohuk), Darashakran (Khabat, Erbil), Qushtapa (Arbil).

Hajir spent significant periods of time in each of these camps – interviewing, listening and being a presence. He took photographs of infants, children, mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers. The fathers, not so much in evidence, were perhaps fighting or injured or had perished in the conflict. We looked at young children playing without toys, in the dusty “front yards” of tent. The committee and then the York community during the 4Days4Syria, looked at photographs of infants sleeping in tiny wooden cradles. We looked at photographs of families huddled outside tents, coping with the inexorable “stuckness” of refugee life – they are not home and they may not be in any home for months or years. We looked at photographs women of an undefinable age, carrying children and minding toddlers. Were they the children’s grandmothers? Were they neighbors or fellow travelers on the journey, taking in children who were now alone? We looked at a photograph of a 12-year old girl in a wheelchair and wondered how unlucky can a child be? Unable to walk and stuck in a refugee camp?

This is a little boy in the Arbat camp, all of one or two, alone and absolutely howling with despair. Hajir spent two weeks in this camp, watching the little boy, hoping that the boy might find some relief from the tears. The relief never came. The tears never stopped. This photograph is of a boy desperately alone, who only knows his mother is not comforting him. He is relying on strangers to feed and watch out for him. For Hajir it was difficult to speak about this boy. It was also difficult to hear about this boy.

Here is a young girl, Delal in the Arbat refugee camps, who has a respiratory condition, trying to cope in the suffocating heat of the desert, in one of the hottest summers on record in Iraq. She is unwavering in her gaze – but look at how she clutches her wrist. It could be nervousness or it could be habit. Her dress is very pretty but the rows of tents let you know that she is going nowhere special.

A mother watches over her sleeping infant in the Khanke refugee camp. If you look carefully at her hand, you will see that she has a red plastic circle on her middle finger. Why? It is has monetary value. Hajir tells us that this young mother had to sell her gold wedding ring to pay for her escape to safety. This plastic ring is entirely symbolic: it lets the world know she is proud to be married, she is committed to her husband. She is probably taking this journey without him because she has no choice.

Here is an older Yezidi man in the Arbat camp. Water is scarce in a refugee camp – it is rationed and lines form to get even one liter. That he is using such a scarce resource to cool himself must mean the temperatures had reached insufferable levels. As people who take clean water for granted every day we actually have to think hard about what that kind of deprivation must mean. We cannot imagine the tap not running. We cannot imagine being so thirsty or so hot and measuring each cup of water.

It was really hard in the beginning to look, much less take real notice of the people “over there”. It is true knowing that there is such deprivation is hard. And that the disparity between the young woman in a refugee camp and you or me is so great, can make us feel helpless. How can we do the important job of taking notice and become aware of what is actually in these photographs and to whom? The 4Days4Syria were about setting the conditions for noticing through openness, community and dialogue.

The Atrium in Scott Library was built to centrally focus the light, to light up the town hall that is the centre of community in a democracy. And members of the York University community travel through that town hall on an hourly, daily or weekly basis. Putting the photographs there, in the middle, connects our daily lives with the lives in the photographs. We decided to place the photographs in this open space, with light to shine on the faces of the children and adults, and with ample time to talk to one another about the story in the photograph. The refugees, too, are in a daily routine, though not one of their choosing. We all understand routines – a smoking break, playing in the afternoon, or running errands. We set the conditions for noticing and altering something within each other.

To make possible the noticing of lives in difficulty, we also need torch bearers: people who have the light of knowledge and who are willing pass it along to those still somewhere in the dark. The torch bearer must also know how much of the knowledge she or he can pass along. Hajir spoke to many people about those photographs over the 4 days. Some conversations lasted a long time, others were only minutes. That was okay. Whatever a person could handle, whatever tiny bit more Hajir could pass along, he did. Members of the committee, because we handled the photographs, the descriptions and were always there to hear at least some of a life story, could also say “oh, I have heard Hajir talk about this little girl, Sterk. She wanted so much to go home and see her friends and go to classes at her school. Sterk told him how much she missed her friends and her home. They talked for several hours; that little girl and her wanting to go home really had an impact on Hajir.”

A committee of friends also helps us face difficult truths and situations. Friends will know when someone is flagging: struggling with a memory or struggling to keep the awareness alive or struggling to keep the event on track. The beauty of something like 4Days4Syria is that a committee of near and true strangers becomes a committee of friends. The common purpose of bringing awareness to the Syrian refugee crisis and raising funds to settle a handful of families in Toronto, helped us to see the value of our specific, unique contributions to the committee. We built patience and understanding when we made mistakes or had misunderstandings.

Hajir Sharifi, journalist, photographer and writer.

On launch day, Monday February 8th, we displayed sixteen of Hajir Sharifi’s photographs in a well-light section of the artium in Scott Library. His photographs were the cornerstone of the awareness and fund-raising campaign. They were a constant in the ever-changing mix of people and activities over the 4 days. Everyday, from 12-2 students and staff walking through the Atrium had an opportunity to examine and reflect on the photographs. The photographs were also projected, with descriptions, on a very large LCD screen. There was no way to miss these incredible photographs. Joy Kirchner and Dalu Ndlovu launched the 4Days4Syria and Hajir spoke about his experiences at the refugee camps and of taking the photographs. He gave us much needed contextual information about the crisis and also shared the personal stories of a few of the Syrian refugees.

Professor Secil Erdogan Ertorer: “Seeking Refuge in a Hostile Zone”
Rana Sukarieh, PhD Candidate: "Building Hope: the experience of Sociologists at York and Friends Sponsorship Group"

Secil Ertorer is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology and the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. She has conducted research in England, Turkey and Canada with various refugee groups, such as Turkish, Kurdish, Karen, Burmese, and Syrian. Recently, Secil has been working on a project on the Syrian refugee crisis, funded by SSHRC and York international collaboration grants. She conducted a fieldwork in Turkey in summer 2015.

Secil gave an informative and empassioned talk. She spoke about the challenges refugees face – from being sold defective life jackets to expulsion from a mosque they had been using to meet basic everyday needs for hygiene. She also spoke of the hidden fears Europe has of “too many” migrants and Turkey’s precarious situation – its eastern borders are meant to be kept open, but its western borders to Europe are meant to be kept closed. Despite promises of billions, the situation cannot be quickly or easily fixed.

Rana Sukarieh charmed the audience with her gentle and humourful summary of the trials and tribulations of working in York’s first family sponsorship group. She spoke about collected items, talking to government officials and those first few amazing communications with the family. Her sponsorship group is eager to welcome the family sometime soon.

Spoken Word Poets: Shadiya Aidid, Zeinab Aidid, Nisim Asgari and Kareem Bennett,

How do you make passers-by notice something?

Ask York student Nisim Asgari to speak about issues of colonialism, racism and sexism. She, along with Shadiya, Zeinab and Kareem, connected the stories of people “over there” with the stories of the people here. These young poets from different national and religious backgrounds performed original and established pieces on immigration, forced migration and the Canadian settlement experiences of people of colour. The stories resonated with young and not so young audience members!

The Marketplace and Silent Auction

We opened up the marketplace to all and encouraged bidding on Hajir’s photographs. Kathy Bischoping and Mary Lehane sold scarves and accessories with flair and enthusiasm. Osgoode Dean Lorne Sossin and University Librarian Joy Kirchner had a friendly feud over photographs. Associate Dean for Global and Community Engagement Narda Razack spoke at the close of the event. She along with others were visibly moved by the stories Kathy, Dalu, Hossain and Hajir shared about their very personal reasons for being involved – there were tears! Throughought the four days and especially in the final moments, it was clear, we had built community, we noticed things within each other and we were brought together by events outside our control. The experience was amazing for all who participated – and more than one person said “let’s do this again!”.

The committee raised $948 for Sociologists and Friends Sponsorship Group and $2558 for the RULifeline Syria Challenge.

The committee that organized 4Days4Syria did so on a wing, a prayer and some financial help from York University Libraries and the Mosiac Institute. The committee was comprised of: Angie An (Business Librarian), Kalina Grewal (Sociology, Anthropology & Gender Studies Librarian), Toni Kaltsounis (Personnel Coordinator), Patti Ryan (Political Science Librarian), Marcia Salmon (Cataloguing Librarian) and UofMosiac York Fellows Rebecca Hajos and Dalu Ndlovu. Rebecca is in her second year, pursuing a double major in Communications and Human Rights & Equity Studies. Student Senator, Dalu is in his third year of in Human Rights & Equity Studies. The UofMosaic Fellowship Program identifies and invests in student leaders in Canada who have a commitment and connection to global issues. Our event photographer, MD Hossain, came with his own impressive credentials. He is the Deputy Secretary General of OGGRO Agamir Bangladesh, a non-profit organization recognized by the United Nations. OGGRO Agamir finds funding for and develops innovative projects to better the lives of underprivileged youth. Hossain is in his final year, pursuing a major in Specialized Economics.

Written by Kalina Grewal
Antropology, Gender Studies and Sociology Librarian