There are words we are trained not to use as humanitarian communicators. Traumatised is one of them. It’s a word with a very specific meaning applied in specific circumstances. But as I looked at this little boy standing with a plastic gun aimed at my head I could think of no other word.
He is ten years old living with his family in an informal tented settlement in Lebanon. His family fled Syria two years ago. During their journey across the border his father was shot five times. This little boy watched me and my camera intently as my colleagues spoke with his sister and little brother. His stance was causally alert, his shoulders relaxed as he leaned against the wooden frame, but his grip on his toy gun was firm. His eyes were too aware of every movement made. He was acting as their guard, their protector.
When he was unhappy with words spoken or the aim of the camera he kicked, pushed and yelled. I didn’t react as he tried to push me. Nor did I flinch when he raised his toy gun to my head. When he turned the toy gun on himself I knelt down to meet him eye to eye.
He never looked scared and his guard didn’t drop as I tried to smile at him. It was instinct to reach out to him. I lightly placed my hand on his shoulder and rhythmically tapped my finger up and down. It was something I had learned in a psychological first-aid training course. Like most of those courses you never really think that the simulations they put you through will become your reality. I wished in that moment I had paid more attention, read more of the materials they suggested. The tapping thing was all I could remember. I have no idea how or why this works but somehow it did.
He allowed me to gently pull the toy gun out of his mouth. I spoke to him in English. He spoke back to me in Arabic. Neither of us could understand each other but somehow the simple touch of my hand on his back formed a connection. He leant in closer to me and before I knew it his head rested on my shoulder.
He remained by my side for the rest of the day. He would still at times kick and push the passing people in the camp. But he would also now smile. I even managed to teach him how to high five. Up high, down low…too slow. He laughed each time we played this. And as we said good bye at the end of the day he leaned once more into my side. He stood by the car waving goodbye to me as our car pulled away; the toy gun still in his hand.
“My children are sick because I can’t afford heating or food.”
I took a sharp intake of breath when I finally realised what he had said. I lowered my camera, ashamed to admit that my mind had been on the lighting of the room, the framing of the image, and not at all on the words being spoken. The faces of his four children seemed more fragile now I was no longer looking at them through a lens.
This is my first full deployment. Based in Jordan I am managing the communications across our Syrian Crisis Response in three different countries. I’ve taken nearly 3,000 photos since I arrived, interviewed multiple families and just accepted that my heart will be forever broken by these situations. This day however was different.
It was News Years Day and I commenced this trip with a feeling of pressure. Pressure to deliver exactly what was expected from colleagues not here on the ground, from colleagues who also have an incredibly challenging and vital role to play in raising awareness and funds for this crisis. A crisis that has been going for too long with too little interest from the rest of the world.
There is always a tension to get the right image that will make people care, that will really express the reality and harshness of the circumstances these refugees are facing. It is not always easy and often the true desperation of a situation is not shown in what they are wearing or even how they are living. It is shown and felt in the way they look at you and talk to you. The fear that stays with someone who has had to flee for their lives is gut-wrenching. The suspicion, the caution, the slow deliberate movements that they make and the sudden bursts of anger and frustration have a way of making me feel helpless and guilty that I can’t make it all go away. This guilt leads to doubt in my ability to get the right image or quote that will make the world care enough to do something. Late last year I enrolled in an advanced photography course and had a few one on one lessons with some close photography friends. All of this in the hope that when I was deployed my abilities would do justice to the people I meet.
But it is hard to show just how cold a concrete floor is on the naked feet of a child, how wet the inside of a room is from the leaking roof, or how bone shivering the air in a house with no sealed window is as it snows outside. It is even harder to look through the back of a camera at a child’s face as it crumbles into tears.
I’m not sure I will ever be able to take that image or tell that story that could move the rest of the world to care about another country’s children. And I know I will end each day like this crying. But if just one person, somewhere is moved, compelled to take a degree of action be it a share on Facebook, saying a prayer, making a donation or advocating to their government to do more and if just one child that I meet here can go to bed at night knowing they are not forgotten then the long hours, the fatigue and the heartbreak are more than worth it.