'Part of our legacy': Photography project gives Edmonton refugees new family portraits

When Basel Ahbou Homrah’s home in Damascus was gutted by a bomb, everything he cherished was obliterated. But it's his family photographs he misses most.

'I want these memories to stay with us a long time'

Basel Ahbou Homrah and his mother pose for Edmonton photographer Stephanie Simpson, the founder of This is Not a Passport Photo. (Stephanie Simpson)

When his home in Damascus was gutted by a bomb, everything Basel Ahbou Homrah cherished was obliterated.

But it's the family photographs he misses most.

"I went upstairs to my apartment and I found it destroyed. No walls, no roof, everything burned," said Homrah. "I couldn't take anything because there was nothing.

"All of the memories from when I was kid. I wish, sometimes, there was technology to take the images from my mind and make them physical pictures."

Homrah and his family soon fled to Lebanon, where he spent two years in a refugee camp before finally immigrating to Canada in 2015.

Now, thanks to a photography project in Edmonton, Homrah has a new family photograph to hang on the wall of his new home.

'Big part of our legacy'

This is Not a Passport Photo is a new project that provides refugees and other recent immigrants a chance to pose for family portraits as they start their new lives in Canada.

"Photographs are such a big part of our legacy," said project founder Stephanie Simpson in an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.

"For all these kids who will grow up in Canada and have Canadian children, it would be such a beautiful thing to have a tangible memory of their first few days in the country."

Simpson started the project last year. Heartbreaking stories of loss from the front lines of the Syrian refugee crisis inspired her work, she said.

"I saw this news story about refugees who had left Syria and what they had chosen to take with them. And one of the things in this handful of items they were able to take was a photograph.

"As a photographer, I had been thinking about how I could do my part to help out. And this just seemed like the logical place."

Simpson has already taken photographs of more than 150 people, as well as made a short film to document the process. Most of the photographs were taken during a recent newcomers' event at the Edmonton Art Gallery. Each family was carefully posed and sent home with a print of their own.

'So close to my heart now'

Simpson was given $10,000 for production of the documentary by StoryHive, a community-led funding program for emerging artists. She hopes to get more backing for her project through another one of StoryHive's ongoing contests.

But whether or not she wins the financing, Simpson feels compelled to continue her work.

"This is something that's so close to my heart now. Whatever happens with the competition, this is something that I have to keep doing," she said.

"That moment of handing a photograph over, especially to a little kid who maybe hasn't had a photo in their hand for some time, it was very special."

Now when Homrah looks at the portrait taken of him and his mother, smiling in glossy black and white, he knows it will become part of the family legacy.

"I want these memories to stay with us a long time," he said. "When I have a family, when I have kids, I will show them this is our first year in Canada."

About the Author

Wallis Snowdon


Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has nearly a decade of experience reporting behind her. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca

With files from Stephanie Mitchell