Building Dreams Inside a Refugee Camp

Sweat rolled down every inch of my body. My clothes soaked up water like the children’s toy that just plopped into a glass of water. But it didn’t matter; adrenaline pumping as my senses took in the surroundings. We seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, but for the middle of nowhere there sure was a lot of activity—women carried jerry cans back from the community well, children followed along, stopping to look at whatever creepy-crawly moved in front of them.

Soon our SUV rolled to a stop. After crossing through rough terrain a security checkpoint and a little smooth talking we made our way to the make-shift sewing center.

Camera strapped to my hip I bent my tall frame and entered in. Inside the dark sauna were around 20 young women working on their latest projects. Their smooth, black skin only accented their brilliant white teeth. It made me wonder what a Crest ad campaign manger would do if he walked in here! There was only one way they could avoid the yellow and brown stained teeth of their male counterparts—no kat. The highly addicting drug that drove so many into desperation, if chewed long enough, would stain anyone’s pearly whites. But these ladies were different. Their white teeth alone showed me they had determination.

 After the teachers introduced us we made our rounds to talk to the girls. Each one proudly held up their latest creation as I snapped a photograph. But the real joy came when I turned the camera around. You see, it’s funny how we Westerners react to the back of the camera. We squench our nose and usually follow with some sound of “ugh”. Immediately coming up with reason why we need to lose 5 pounds, get a haircut, or never wear that shirt again. But anytime I’ve turned the camera around to someone in the developing world I get a different response. I get joy, usually ensued by uncontrollable laughter. Whether it’s elderly men, young women, or children, they are fascinated to see their portrait! And now that they’ve discovered this little gem of the digital age, they want more. And being a photographer sent to capture stories, I never complain!

After capturing a few shots we stopped to talk to a young girl named Ayaani*. Her hot pink scarf immediately caught my attention followed by her shy demeanor.  But soon she began to open up, telling us of how she had arrived to the refugee camp when she was 8 years old along with her parents and two siblings. At only 16 years old she has spent most of her childhood living in make-shift house made of UNHCR tarps. She appreciates what she has now, because even though she doesn’t have much recollection of what happened before they arrived to the camp, she knows it wasn’t safe, and she knows this camp saved her life.

They told her she is in the process of going to America, that her family along with 6 others will soon be approved. Her face lights up as she tells us through a translator how she doesn’t want to be ignorant; she hopes to study both English and French.

Being in a refugee camp seems to always-illicit dreams of getting out to the Western world. Growing up watching friends and even enemies get tickets to the West creates a fascination of something better to come. I wish I could tell her of my friends who’ve made it and how living in the West isn’t always better. Fighting to overcome a new culture, language, and being too old for school, having to figure out a job with little to no education presents a new kind of hell none of us could imagine. But of course I can’t say that. In fact, what I really want to do is give her a hug hand her my phone number and tell her to call me as soon as she lands. But that wouldn’t be wise either. So instead, I muster up a smile as I choke back tears.

Each of the girls in the sewing center have a unique opportunity. They have the privilege of learning. They are given a skill that allows them to bring home some income, but more than that it allows them to bring home dignity. They are blessed to have teachers and supporters pouring into them, looking them in the face and telling them they are worth it!

So join me in praying for these ladies. Pray for their dreams and aspirations and pray for those who are pouring into their lives, that will never ever stop.

*names changed for security reasons

Ayaani showing off her latest creation.

Tina and I posing with two of the female teachers.

Group Shot of the sewing teachers

Group shot of some of the girls in the sewing program.

I absolutely LOVE this photo of Nami, one of the teachers. Her joy was seriously contagious. 

If you'd like to hear more about how you can play a part in helping us fund more projects like this leave your email below in the comment section and let's get together for coffee or over skype!