Toronto Programs

What it's like at a refugee camp through the camera lens of a refugee

Hany al Moulia is an unlikely photographer, legally blind and a Syrian refugee. Yet his photos are on display at a show in downtown Toronto.

Finding Refuge is a photography show for the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression

To the Unknown: "It’s great to see my siblings going for a walk before sunset. When I took this picture from the side of the road, I felt a bit astonished… And I asked myself: When will we reach the end of the road? This road of which we can see no specific horizon…!" (Hany al Moulia)

Thousands of Syrian refugees are coming to this country, a fact well known by Canadians.

Less well known is where the Syrians are coming from — refugee camps in places like Lebanon and Jordan. 

It was in one of those camps that Brendan Bannon and Hany al Moulia met.

Bannon is an American photographer who was teaching photography to refugees at a Lebanese camp.

Al Moulia was one of his students. He'd left his home in Homs, Syria, when the country's devastating conflict began and members of his family were killed.

Both Bannon and al Moulia's photos will be on display as part of the annual gala for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression at the Royal York Hotel. The exhibit is called Finding Refuge.

The relationship began as teacher-student, as Bannon was in Lebanon with the UN. 

Bannon was sitting in a workshop with a group of 12 students, cycling through photos. "When Hany's memory card popped up on the screen, it was breathtaking," remembered Bannon. "It was hard to concentrate on teaching when I saw them. The images were surprising, captivating, for a whole variety of reasons — a keen eye and a sensitive intelligence behind them."

"If you want to be a good photographer, you have to deal with light well, and that’s what I tried to do in the picture… And you also have to show people what you want from a picture…," said al Moulia. (Hany al Moulia)

What makes 21-year-old al Moulia's photography even more incredible is that the young Syrian has a visual impairment. He suffers from nystagmus, an eye condition that causes rapid eye movement and prevents him from seeing anything beyond 10 centimetres in front of his face.

He said life has taught him that "sense is better than his vision."

"In the beginning, I didn't have an idea how to take the pictures, but I started to build a feeling between me and the camera sensor."

Al Moulia said he still has some limitations. He doesn't really shoot moving subjects, and takes his time to compose the pictures.

In the refugee camp, there was no educational system, so al Moulia started to look at what he could do with his surroundings. 

"This woman told me that she burns on the inside every time she remembers the past in her country… Or when she compares herself before and after coming here… I can feel that too every time I look at this picture," al Moulia said. (Hany al Moulia)

"Even the simplest picture, in the hands of someone whose life has been interrupted, can be loaded with meaning," said Bannon.

For example, Bannon said a photo of a set of keys that al Moulia took had a backstory behind it. The keys were actually the keys to the house in Homs they left behind.

"All of the students in those camps have something to say to the world. They had something and then they've lost it. Sometimes the story beyond the picture is deeper," said al Moulia.

"Even the dog is cared for with his own broken tent," said al Moulia. (Hany al Moulia)

The Syrian photographer still can't believe he is sharing the exhibition with professionals. He considers it an honour, and something he wants to do again. He is building up his freelance photography career in Regina, where he and his family now live.

"People think refugees just need clothes and food, and often they forget about the inside, the heart," he said. "Most people are trying to do something to fill a gap in their lives, and it's important to give refugees chance to do something."