Nour Nouralla grew up in Syria, but no one she knows lives there anymore.
She rattled off the destinations of friends and family, some of whom left as a four-year war ravaged the country: “Germany, France, England, the Gulf area, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Lebanon — there’s many people who fled to Lebanon in the early stages of the conflict — Amman, Jordan — there are Syrians in Malaysia because they don’t need a visa.”
More than 4 million people have now left Syria in the largest mass migration since World War II. Most of them now live in Jordan, Turkey, or Lebanon, which has seen its population swell by more than a quarter, an amount that Kim Ghattas at Foreign Policy pointed out would be the equivalent of 90 million refugees arriving in the U.S. Thousands of others have traveled by boat from Turkey to Greece, where they cross over to Macedonia and Serbia. And last week, as Hungary closed its borders to refugees, the flow of people toward western Europe swelled along the path from Serbia to Croatia, with more than 5,000 people crossing into Croatia daily, The Guardian has reported.
As these numbers make headlines, Nouralla is one of a group of photographers bringing focus to the individual faces and voices that share a Syrian identity — ones that they say can get lost in media coverage of the war — with the project “Syrian Eyes of the World.”
Youssef Shoufan, the project’s founder, moved from Damascus to Montreal with his family at the age of seven. Growing up in Montreal, he said he felt disconnected from his origins. Two years ago, he traveled to Beirut, Lebanon, and connected with the growing community of Syrians there.
He said the people he met in Beirut inspired him to start the project and capture the shared culture between Syrians everywhere. “It’s important for us to include everyone who has Syrian origins, with no geography bounds. It’s not about if you’re inside or outside Syria,” he said.
The project currently has 10 photographers, all of whom are Syrian. The photographers themselves are from a range of cities, including Beirut, New York City, Montreal, Aleppo, Syria, and other cities around the world.
Shoufan said he hopes the project can provide a more realistic portrait of Syrians at a time when many images of Syrians are associated only with war.
“The idea is to balance what is shown about Syria and Syrians and bring that image closer to reality,” Shoufan said.
Nouralla lived in Damascus and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, before moving to New York City to study architecture at the Pratt Institute. She applied to join the project last year and recently spent three months in Berlin, where she met Syrians who had just arrived at the end of a long journey.
“I heard from people who literally just crossed the borders,” she said. “Some of them had no problems on the trip, [but] some of them have literally spent 25 days on the road, on feet. Just meeting somebody who finally reached their destination from the hell that they’ve been through, back wherever they came from — just seeing the smile on their face and the relief on their face has been really inspiring.”
Talking to her subjects has made her reconsider the meaning of “home” in her life and the lives of others, she said. “It always gives me a unique perspective on, what do we call home, really? That’s what I try to do in my portraits,” she said. “I always like to bring up issues like the issue of home or belonging, or places, and how people assimilate and adapt to these new places and cities.”
Antoine Entabi, a photographer for the project, met Shoufan in Beirut in 2013, shortly after moving there from Damascus. “I had to leave Syria,” he said. “I had to move to start a new beginning.”
Now, Entabi works in Shatila, Lebanon, for Basmeh & Zeitooneh, an NGO that provides Syrian refugees with direct services and community support. “Everyday, I [see] new refugees came to the camp, and live in miserable conditions. Most of them came and hold [their] dreams on [their] shoulders,” he wrote in a Facebook message.
Entabi aims for the project to show the diversity of Syrian people and their strength under difficult circumstances, he said. “In Syria we have a lot of communities, different religion, culture, and accents,” he wrote. “We have more than 12,000 years of civilizations … I believe that the Syrian[s] will spread [their] thoughts and culture around the world.”
An exhibit featuring some of the photos will be on display in front of the town hall in Pessac, France, from Nov. 16-23 as part of the Festival International du Film d’Histoire de Pessac. Project photographers Youssef and Madonna Adib just signed on to direct a documentary with Montreal-based Parabola Films following several Syrians around the world as they grapple with the war’s impact on their lives.
See more photos from “Syrian Eyes of the World” below.