Let Her Thrive
This May/June the Picture Christians Project will launch a new initiative called Thrive. The idea behind Thrive is that while the war against the Islamic State in Iraq is being won, the battle for the lives and futures of its victims is just beginning. Thrive will coordinate activities for the Assyrian Christian and Yezidi victims of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, taking real steps designed to help them regain their sense of self and self worth, the both of which have been battered almost to death after nearly three years of war and homelessness.
We are assembling US, Iraq and Syrian based teams of experts for Thrive, individuals with years of experience working with people who have suffered tremendous loss and deprivation. Some of the team members are refugees themselves, and will bring to Thrive not just sympathy but real life empathy. Thrive will be like nothing you may have seen before and certainly like nothing going on in Iraq or Syria.
Later this May, then, I will tell you more about Thrive. But before I do, I wanted to tell you about where the idea for Thrive came from.
(Above: Nora, age ten. Near Erbil, Iraq. Copyright 2017, Jeff Gardner and the Picture Christians Project. Click on the image for a full screen view.)
“I cannot fix the whole world – no one, short of Christ, can… No, we cannot fix the whole world, but we can try, and oh we will try, to fix our corner of it.”
For the past three years I have been traveling to Iraq and Syria, almost a dozen times since the fall of 2014. During those trips I have taken hundreds, maybe thousands of photographs of the people who have borne the brunt of ISIS’ campaign of conquest and terror. Featured in news articles and magazines around the world, I believe that the images are telling a story that needs to be told.
But I want my images to do more.
Instead of (mostly) telling stories about the “somethings” of the world, such as events and places, I want my photographs to speak more for the “someones” featured in them.
Every time I point my camera at something or someone, I hope the resulting image will act as a magic window through which Christians around the world can reach out and connect with people. Believe it or not, one of the greatest fears of a refugee is that the rest of the world has forgotten about her, and that she has been thrown into obscurity, never to be heard from or seen again. To fight this fear I want the voices and experiences of those who I photograph to ring more clearly, more authentically in the photographs. In short, I want to turn my photographs over to the people who are in them, transforming these people from objects back into subjects.
This process starts with listening, with sitting down with people and asking them to describe their experiences, their thoughts, their dreams and even their nightmares. What do they want to say about themselves and their experience through the frame of a photograph?
This process also involves getting closer, focusing on the person as the subject, seeing them as an individual and not as some refugee stage-prop in a landscape of despair. While context is important, the person is always more important. This will be the guiding principal behind how Thrive will be shown and seen.
The idea for Thrive came out of an encounter on a rainy and cold afternoon with a little Yezidi girl named Nora (see above).
(Above: The unfinished building that Nora and her family call “home.” Near Erbil, Iraq. Copyright 2017, Jeff Gardner and the Picture Christians Project. Click on the image for a full screen view.)
Living in an abandon building on the outskirts of the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, Nora and her family had been swept up in the waves of displaced peoples escaping the ISIS’ invasion of their native region, the Sinjar. As I spoke with her mother, Nora’s story gradually emerged.
Nora was 10 (almost 11) years old. Her family had lived in a village (they asked me to keep the exact name private) in the Sinjar region. They had managed to escape the ISIS invasion, but just barely. Making their way North and East, they managed to reach the city of Erbil, hoping to find refuge and a place to live. They found none, and were forced, like thousands of others, to try and make a home in one of the hundreds of unfinished buildings in and around Erbil.
Nora attended a nearby government run school, but she was struggling. All subjects are taught in Arabic, a language she does not fully understand (she speaks Kurdish) and, her mother told me, frightens her because “it sounds like the language of ISIS.” Nora cries a lot.
As I walked away from Nora’s “home,” feeling as useless as I have ever felt, I wondered what would become of her? Would she simply disappear into the swelling ranks of the 6 billion people worldwide who are poor, generation after generation, living on less than $10 a week? I pray not, but I simply do not know.
I cannot fix the whole world – no one, short of Christ, can. There is no “easy button” to push or master switch to flip that will right what has gone wrong for Nora and many other little girls like her. No, we cannot fix the whole world, but we can try, and oh we will try, to fix our corner of the world.
This is where Thrive comes in, and with your help, that is what Thrive will do – fix what can be fixed.
Stay tuned and get ready – and yes, Nora will be hearing from us again.