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Story Publication logo September 29, 2022

I Am Not Your Refugee: Ana Surie


Illustration of a girl holding a small wooden house, inside of which is a flame. Text reads, 'not your refugee.'

Podcast series created in collaboration with journalists, artists and activists with direct lived...

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Multiple Authors

Image by openDemocracy. United Kingdom, 2022.

A conversation about the ‘Ana Surie’ (‘I Am Syrian’) photography exhibition organised in the Zaatari refugee camp.

Mohamad Khalf has been teaching photography in Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan, for many yearsinstilling a love of learning and creative expression in his students Ali and Mohammed Nour Al-Babisi.

They talk to Bairbre Flood about the photography exhibition Mohamad Khalf organised in the camp, called ‘Ana Surie’ (‘I Am Syrian’) and why they are Syrian firstnot refugees.

Nour Al-Hariri shares her rap music and explains why she writes about early marriage, child labour, and other issues—and why the many talented and creative women in the camp should be supported more.

Watch some of the short films created by Al-Balbisi.

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Presented by Mahmoud Hassino and produced by Bairbre Flood.

Theme music by Omar Alkilani. Artwork by Haya Halaw.

With thanks to the Pulitzer Center for funding support.


Mahmoud Hassino: Hi, I'm Mahmoud Hassino and you're listening to I Am Not Your Refugee, a podcast created by myself and Bairbre Flood in collaboration with some of the refugee community organizers, activists and artists working to challenge stereotypes around migration. With thanks to the Pulitzer Center for funding support

Hi, and welcome to this week's episode, which comes to you from Zaatari camp in Jordan. Zaatari is home to just over 80,000 people who were forced to leave Syria during the war. More than half of the camps residents are children. Muhammad Khalf has been teaching photography in Zaatari for many years. We'll hear more from him throughout the program. But first, we talked to one of his students, Ali. During his chat with Bairbre, he talks about a photography exhibition, Mohammed Khalf organized in the camp called 'Ana Surie', 'I Am Syrian'.

Ali: I'm a Ali. I'm 23 years old. I'm Syrian, but I live in Zaatari Camp in Jordan. I have been living in this camp in Jordan since I was 13. I finished my high school. And now I'm working as a photographer with some organization here in Zaatari camp. I like photography. It was it was a hobby when I was a child, and I improved it to make it something to stay alive. It was my hobby. And now it's my job. Mohammad Khalf gave me the basics. And after that he said that if I learn the whole thing you will do what I do. If I give you the basics, you will show me your creative. This is it.

Bairbre Flood: What did you like most about the way Mohammed taught or about the ethos of the course or how he did it?

Ali: Mohammad's style was so amazing for us because he was a teacher, instructor—a brother also—and the first supporter for us. He was helping us and everything that we can do it. And when we are making a mistake, he said okay, it's easy—it's not a big problem—to go ahead, to learn more and more.

Bairbre Flood: So in the project with Muhammad, I know you had an exhibition 'Ana Surie'? So why is it important for him to help people be proud of that?

Ali: I think the main thing in this project 'Ana Surie' it was just to let the people and all the word know what the meaning of the Syrian. We are not a refugee, we are human, this is it.

And we just show our culture and our traditional clothes, what we would like, what we are living. Like trees, or flowers. When I was in Syria you can see that in each house in Syria, there is a tree or flowers. And here is not. And we make it—you can see most of the houses here in Zaatari camp, you can see the trees rows. And this was something important for us to bring with us and to feel just we are there's something from our home.

I improved my skills and just now I'm on a level that they can see the photos and know if there any mistake in it or not. Get tips to make the photos more beautiful. It's good for me actually. And from the photography. I made a lot of relationship with friends. That was so good for me, actually, for Syrian people. Not just Syrian but outside the camp in Jordan, or you can see the Arabian country...from America from Britain.

Here in Zaatari camp the opportunity for the youth is so low actually. I'm now I'm 22 years old and I just finished my high school and I don't go to the university so I'm looking for a scholarship right now. So there's a lot of people here in Zaatari like this, like me. There was no opportunity just to learn. Maybe all of them and I'm one of them are looking forward to go outside the camp, to Arabian country maybe, to Europe, America, or any country just to complete our learning. We do not like to stay in the same thing. Okay, we are in the high school and what else? Just we are working to complete our life. So all of us want to go outside just get more opportunity.

Mahmoud Hassino: Another of Mohammad Khalf's students Muhammad Nour Al-Balbisi chats with Bairbre and Mohammad Khalf interprets:

Muhammad Nour Al-Balbisi: {speaks in Arabic}

Mohammad Khalf: The picture no back again...

Bairbre Flood: Oh like it's once off yeah, like it happens once that's it. So he has to capture it.

Mohammad Khalf: No internet. The picture no back again.

Bairbre Flood: It happens once and that's it.

Mohammad Khalf: Yeah, the picture is remember.

Bairbre Flood: The picture will never come...the picture will never come back.

Muhammad Nour Al-Balbisi: {speaks in Arabic}

Mohammad Khalf: The camp has many creative people here. Refugees need a chance because the creative inside. Skills, creative need chance.

Muhammad Nour Al-Balbisi: {speaks in Arabic}

Mohammad Khalf: {speaks in Arabic}

Bairbre Flood: What's it called? (The film)

Muhammad Nour Al-Balbisi: Full day in Zaatari.

Mohammad Khalf: Full day of Zaatari. From morning to night.

Muhammad Nour Al-Balbisi: {speaks in Arabic}

Mohammad Khalf: Start with the sun.

Bairbre Flood: Sunrise.

Muhammad Nour Al-Balbisi: {speaks in Arabic}

Mohammad Khalf: Many shops...

Muhammad Nour Al-Balbisi: {speaks in Arabic}

Mohammad Khalf: General shots.

Bairbre Flood: Like of people going about their business. {speaks in Arabic}

Mohammad Khalf: Life of a refugee.

Bairbre Flood: Why that's so important for you to make that and not somebody coming in from Ireland or England or America and coming into the camp and making it? Why is it so important for somebody in the camp?

Muhammad Nour Al-Balbisi: {speaks in Arabic}

Mohammad Khalf: He is taking picture because no people knows how is refugee live in Zaatari camp.

Muhammad Nour Al-Balbisi: {speaks in Arabic}

Mohammad Khalf: He has nationality. Not refugee.

Bairbre Flood: Okay. You're Syrian?

Mohammad Khalf: Yeah, he is. He is Syrian. Not refugee. The refugee here. We hates speak 'refugee, refugee, refugee'. Ana Surie {speaks in Arabic}.

Bairbre Flood: Okay, it's important. For community and for pride, okay. Is there anything you want to tell people?

Muhammad Nour Al-Balbisi: {speaks in Arabic}

Bairbre Flood: {speaks in Arabic} Nothing? Ok! Watch the video.

Muhammad Nour Al-Balbisi: {speaks in Arabic}

Mohammad Khalf: {speaks in Arabic}

Finish film 'Full day of Zaatari' and {speaks in Arabic} new project—Ramadan month...

Bairbre Flood: You're gonna film all through the month?

Mohammad Khalf: Ramadan after this month.

Bairbre Flood: In April?

Mohammad Khalf: Yeah. He has one project about Ramadan.

Bairbre Flood: Okay it's good {speaks in Arabic}

Mohammad Khalf: She waiting to see film.

Bairbre Flood: {speaks in Arabic} thank you so much.

Mohammad Khalf: {speaks in Arabic}

Nour Al Hariri: {speaks in Arabic—raps a piece she's written}

Ataa Hamidi: Her name is Nour Huda Akram Al Hariri.

Nour Al Hariri: {speaks in Arabic}

Ataa Hamidi: She wrote a song about rap. This song name is {speaks in Arabic} which mean in English 'when I want to be different person I should make the difference'. I should change something. When she completed this song she was she was very happy with this song and she can do something and she can do many changes. She decided to go through this aspect and write songs.

Nour Al Hariri: {speaks in Arabic}

Ataa Hamidi: One of her most important people—she wanted to be like him—his name is Ismail Tamar. He is a singer and he also sing the rap. She wanted to imitate him and to be like him.

Nour Al Hariri: {speaks in Arabic}

Ataa Hamidi: At this moment, I discovered that there's no need to stop and to be to waiting for anything. Because life is going on. And there is no need to waste the time so that I decided to have another person help me. I write and the other person sing and this person I choose my sister Bruj.

Nour Al Hariri: {speaks in Arabic}

Ataa Hamidi: We started together my sister and me. And when we show the people they liked the idea and they told us: why don't you improve this aspect? And you evaluate this song and do more of this song and we did it.

Bairbre Flood: What do you write about?

Nour Al Hariri: {speaks in Arabic}

Ataa Hamidi: MashAllah, she's so fast! We we wrote the songs for many topics. And one of the most important and familiar topics was the early marriage. And also one of the most important topic that they wrote songs about is violence, especially with the mother or the woman. And then they wrote many topics about the kids work, the kids they work in the camp. They still young, no more than 10 years or 11 years and they worked in the camp. They wanted to focus on this idea and wrote many songs on this topic. They also wanted to focus on the topic of the woman right, they thought that a woman in the camp may need more support. This is why they focus on this idea.

Nour Al Hariri: {speaks in Arabic}

Ataa Hamidi: Being a feminist means many things to her because as a Syrian refugee feminist in the camp mean like maybe many people will see her as a very bad way or constantly treat her as a very bad way. She wanted to change this idea and she wanted to change the thought of our many people for the woman in the camp. Her sister and her wanted to change the traditional in the camp and also outside the camp because you know, when you being as a singer of rap this mean you are a very different person—especially you are a feminist. So she wanted to change this idea.

Nour Al Hariri: {speaks in Arabic}

Ataa Hamidi: There's many ideas she wanted people to focus in, and she wanted the other country out of Jordan even, to focus on the most. But the most important idea she wanted people to focus in that why don't support us as refugees more? Don't support us more as refugees in general? And she also wants people to focus on support the woman especially. Here in the camp, there are many creative and talented girls.

Nour Al Hariri: {speaks in Arabic}

Ataa Hamidi: She said that being a refugee is not just a person he left his home and his homeland, and sit and live in another place. No, she mean, we are human, persons. And we have many successful ideas, and we are most of us as a highly educated persons. And most of us have very positive and talented work, but they just need a support from people and they need people to see them not just as refugee, but as a human.

Nour Al Hariri and Burj: {speaks in Arabic—recites a rap they wrote}

Nour Al Hariri and her sister Burj, with thanks to Ataa Hamidi for interpreting the interview with Nour for us.

Mahmoud Hassino: Finally, we hear from Mohammad Khalf and after the interview, he shows Bairbre and Ataa some of his students photographs over the years.

Mohammad Khalf: {speaks in Arabic}

Voice Actor: My name is Mohammed Khalf, from Syria. from Dara and born in Damascus.

Mohammad Khalf: {speaks in Arabic}

Voice Actor: I started my volunteer work with children to help them take photographs,

Mohammad Khalf: {speaks in Arabic}

Voice Actor: I liked it when the children express their feelings through the photographs

Mohammad Khalf: {speaks in Arabic}

Voice Actor: From the beginning, I refused the idea that I was just a refugee. And I taught the children to be proud of being Syrian too.

Mohammad Khalf: {speaks in Arabic}

Voice Actor: I'm proud to be helping to change the negative ideas around refugees and proud that I'm one of the people who helped create change in the camp.

Mohammad Khalf: {speaks in Arabic}

Voice Actor: Some of the students I worked with have gone on to get work with some of the organizations and the camp

Mohammad Khalf: {speaks in Arabic}

Voice Actor: And these days I teach children in my house in a small school I've built at the side of my house.

Mohammad Khalf: {speaks in Arabic}

Voice Actor: My volunteer work helps me to keep positive and be more motivated and have more opportunities in the camp for study and work.

Mohammad Khalf: {speaks in Arabic}

Voice Actor: And this work helped me to be closer to the kids in the camp and to my own kids and helped me to decide to be a class teacher and start to study this in the university.

Mohammad Khalf: {speaks in Arabic}

Voice Actor: I know that the change starts from inside us and I decided to strengthen myself more and more and do more volunteer work with the kids.

Mohammad Khalf: {speaks in Arabic}

Voice Actor: And I focused more on the teaching process and help the kids because I want them all to be successful and to be changemakers

Mohammad Khalf: {speaks in Arabic}

Voice Actor: I want to say something to those who think that there is no creativity in the camp. There are many creative people here in the camp who are successful and talented. I just want to say as well that I'm constantly inspired by my wife, Salam.

Mohammad Khalf: {speaks in Arabic}

Voice Actor: I know there's a lot of stereotypes around refugees that's why I tell the children to say I am not a refugee—Ana Surie—I am Syrian. And be proud of that.

Mohammad Khalf: {speaks in Arabic}

Bairbre Flood: A car made out of disability wheelchair, and a caravan here.

Ataa Hamidi: Yes.

Bairbre Flood: That's so cool.

Ataa Hamidi: Different way like.

Bairbre Flood: It's good. Yeah. It's a good picture too.

Mohammad Khalf: {speaks in Arabic}

Bairbre Flood: These are beautiful.

Mohammad Khalf: Camera digital not professional.

Bairbre Flood: A digital camera. That's a very cool.

Ataa Hamidi: He looks not like a refugee—

Bairbre Flood: He looks like an actor!

Ataa Hamidi: He looks like he looks like a Syrian actor, Jamal Suliman.

Bairbre Flood: And these these photos are from all his students as well?

Ataa Hamidi: Yes this photo's from his students.

Bairbre Flood: They're beautiful.

Ataa Hamidi: {speaks in Arabic}

Mahmoud Hassino: Huge thanks to Ali, Muhammad Nour Al Balbisi, Nour Al Hariri and her sister Burj, Ataa Hamidi and Muhammad, Khalf. His wife, Salem, voice actor, Aboudi Dabbagh, and everyone in Mafraq and Zaatari, who helped with this episode. Links to the photographers and the short films they've produced are in the show notes, as are links to more of the work of Nour Al Hariri.

Thank you for listening from myself, Mahmoud Hassino, and producer Bairbre Flood. Music by Omar Al Kilani. Join us next time for our art episode. With artherestanbul, Syrian illustrator and artist Haya Halaw, and Irish-Pakistani artist Hina Khan. See you then! With thanks to the Pulitzer Center for funding support.






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