Legally blind Syrian refugee photographs journey to Canada

For Hany Al Moliya, a legally blind Syrian refugee who arrived in Regina with his family earlier this year, taking photographs is a temporary escape from the challenges of rebuilding their lives in a foreign land.

Hany Al Moliya uses imagination and instinct to frame shots

In a quiet suburb of Regina, Hany Al Moliya wears dark sunglasses to protect his fluttering eyes as he blindly snaps photographs of his family.

The 21-year-old Syrian refugee uses his imagination and instincts to frame the shot, then, after each click, he squints at the screen and smiles.

Al Moliya, who arrived in Canada earlier this year, is legally blind.

He has a debilitating eye condition, nystagmus, that causes involuntary, rapid movement, often called "dancing eyes." Everything is out of focus unless it's 10 centimetres from his face. 

Taking pictures has become a way to snap the world into focus. At the same time, it has provided some refuge for Al Moliya over the past three years.

Escaping Syria

In 2012, the Al Moliya family fled their home in the western Syrian city of Homs after his uncle and cousins were murdered in their home. 

At the time, Al Moliya had just finished high school and was planning to attend university to become an engineer. He escaped with only his clothes and diploma.

"I hope I can use it here," Al Moliya told CBC News in his Regina home. "Because I risk my life for it."

Al Moliya's eye condition made it difficult to settle into the strange environment of an informal refugee settlement in Lebanon.

"At that camp, I tried to be in the shadows. I tried to be in the tent. I can't go outside whenever I want," he said.

Three months after arriving in Regina, Hany Al Moliya, centre, and his family have been set up with the basics: housing, bus passes, health cards, school registration (CBC)

Then the United Nations refugee agency hosted a photography workshop to help young refugees explore and share their world.

Al Moliya 's photos revealed his unique perspective and artistic imagination. 

His poetic descriptions of his photos impressed camp visitors. Al Moliya had taught himself how to speak and write in English by listening to American rap music and watching YouTube videos.

The United Nations refugee agency decided Al Moliya could be a powerful poster boy for the Syrian refugee crisis.

Last year, it hired a film producer to follow him, his five siblings and their parents.

Losing hope

In a web series being released this week, the family's frustration at living in a plastic tent in a crowded refugee camp is clear.

"My family and I are losing hope. Every day the news from Syria gets worse," Al Moliya said in one video. "The situation here is getting ever more tense. We have nothing good to hold on." 

UN spokeswoman Melissa Fleming used Al Moliya's story in a global TED talk in October 2014 to emphasize the risk of ignoring young Syrian refugees.

Hany Al Moliya's pictures from the refugee camp capture everyday moments, including young brothers finding ways to amuse themselves, in spite of the miserable surroundings. (Hany Al Moliya)

"Hany is at a tipping point," Fleming said. "Leave him to languish in this muddy field and he will become a member of a lost generation. Hany's story is a tragedy but it doesn't have to end that way."

Around that time, UNHCR singled out Al Moliya for resettlement and sent his file to the Canadian Embassy in Beirut.

Earlier this year, the Canadian government agreed to directly sponsor Al Moliya and his family. They are among the roughly 600 government-assisted Syrian refugees living in Canada. The majority of the 2,400 Syrian refugees who have come to Canada since 2009 are privately sponsored.

In an email, a spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada said the department gives priority to vulnerable groups.

Al Moliya believes he was chosen because of his medical condition, ability to speak English and the attention he has received from UNHCR.

A new life in Canada

Three months after arriving in Regina, the family has been set up with the basics: housing, bus passes, health cards, school registration.

A local agency that assists newcomers, the Regina Open Door Society, has handled all of it.

Al Moliya's four brothers and sister are all in school. His parents are on a waiting list for English classes.

But Al Moliya's excitement has dimmed. He discovered university tuition is too expensive on their limited allowance. The financial pressure is building. The family of eight lives off $1,500 a month after paying rent and utilities. The money will be cut off in nine months.

Things brightened on Thursday when Al Moliya's story caught the notice of University of Regina president Vianne Timmons, who pulled together some anonymous donors to cover the cost of an ESL course. 

"I have been able to secure enough anonymous donations to cover the costs of ESL courses at our Centre for Continuing Education as well as any costs he incurs while taking these courses associated with accommodating his visual impairment," Timmons said in a statement, adding she was deeply moved by his story.

Al Moliya was overwhelmed by the gesture.

"I'm speechless," he said. "I'm very, very happy." He hopes the course will help him with another goal: studying engineering. The university added that when his ESL classes are done, they will discuss further study options with him.

Al Moliya's father, Mohammed, is a sheep farmer who didn't graduate from high school. 

"We hope we can find a chance to be independent, find work, and be useful in this community," Mohammed Al Moliya said in Arabic, using his son to translate. "We need to help ourselves."

Hany Al Moliya feels a lot of pressure to forge a future for the family. He knows he must find a job.

For him, taking photographs is once again a temporary escape from the challenges of rebuilding their lives in a foreign land.


Bonnie Allen

Senior reporter

Bonnie Allen is a senior news reporter for CBC News based in Saskatchewan. She has covered stories from across Canada and around the world, reporting from various African countries for five years. She holds a master's degree in international human rights law from the University of Oxford. You can reach her at


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