Faces of Change: emphasizing the strength of Syrian refugees instead of their despair

clip(First published in the Holland Times)

The Netherlands is home to an extraordinary new project which aims to change the entrenched perceptions of refugees and educate the general public.

Syrian Change-makers is a transmedia project commissioned by a Dutch charity which aims to document the stories of those who have journeyed from war torn Syria to temporary settlements and then progressed to rebuild their lives.

The documentary is about the collective journey, moving away from a singular journey and the focus is on finding commonalities. The idea is to have an interactive media piece to really affect change so media can really resist and refuse the stereotype of refugees and remove the stereotypes that immigration is a threat in Europe.

The hope is that the project will move away from the media-based image of hopeless defenceless refugees and show the strength, entrepreneurial talents and resilience of displaced people.

The Netherlands-based charity Faces of Change was set up by Dr Saskia Harkema, who was born in the Netherlands but grew up in South America. When she returned she experienced questions that many face around the idea of home, where was it, what did it mean and what was her cultural identity. It is these questions that created a greater understanding and empathy with disenfranchised groups and led her to embark on several projects working with refugees

Saskia’s work with refugees and disenfranchised people began when she coached a refugee from Rwanda which inspired her to set up a project with the EU, Denmark, Belgium the UK and the Netherlands helping women refugees participate in society and this lead to the creation of faces of change her current charity.  She says the problem with the system in Holland is that the system doesn’t distinguish between refugees’ background and education it just pushes people to work in sectors that have economic gaps.  She believes this a real problem as it doesn’t engage with people’s hopes and dreams and talents.  “We perceive refugees from an economic perspective and forget the human stories; it is a very limited view on what they have to offer.”

The video Saskia shows introduces Abdel Qader who in April 2014 was living in Aleppo Syria.  On his birthday his neighbourhood was targeted by the Syrian Army and the building he was in was hit. Now he lives in Turkey and can work with the project which aims to help people cope with the horrors of war.

The project aims to create a tool kit to help others who are still there.  To help Syrians who have left the country as well as there is always a connection to back home.  There are multiple video diaries coming out of Syria so film director Manuela Maiguashca can collaborate stories and begin the process of a collective story telling. The hope is that the project gives a sense of hope, that people know their stories are being documented.  It is a slower process than other forms of media but Manuela says it feels like a more ethical form of media.

Manuela Maiguashca spoke of the project, how it impacted her and what she has taken away from this new endeavour. “We have seen the most incredible ingenuity… I have worked on many projects with disenfranchised people. I see an incredible ability to reinvent; it’s totally different to the helpless refugee image seen in the media.” She went on to say, “Aleppo is not only a place of death and destruction.  What is striking is the immense ability to survive.  To see the physical destruction yet carry on is quite extraordinary and our aim is to challenge the idea that refugees are defenceless.”

When asked what the difference was in this project compared to others she had worked on she said, “It’s early days but I’ve never gone through such violent footage in my life.  I’ve had to witness.  It’s been quite profound. I’m slowly constructing a picture of people’s stories.  People are dealing with a lot of trauma. It’s very raw.  Images of violence create a deeper pain, it’s on another level. I’m processing on many levels, I can feel it is just the tip of the iceberg in a way I feel I am having a deeper experience with this material. I am learning a lot about Syrian culture and not going too aggressively looking for stories. ” She said it has made her really respect the space that people, entrepreneurs, NGOs, Syrians and those working with her on the project are operating in.

The project is hoping to gain further funds via public donations.  For further information visit the faces of change website.

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