The Syrian civil war has entered its sixth year. It’s been labeled the humanitarian crisis of our time, but 2016 specifically was a wretched year for Syrian children: 652 of them died last year, a 20 percent rise on the previous year. Three million Syrian children under age 6 have never even known life outside a state of war.
A lot of this feels abstract for those without personal experience, so Save the Children worked with photographer Nick Ballon and conceptual animator Alma Haser to produce a photo and video series that makes abstractions visible. Using images and anecdotes, they illustrate what’s impossible to see at first glance—the fractured mental states of children who’ve lived through the unmentionable.
Six Syrian refugee children were chosen from the project, to represent each year of the conflict. (They’re all now living in Turkey.) The base of each is a photo taken by Ballon, layered with 3-D artwork by Haser, whose creative techniques—like ripping, folding, crumpling and origami—vary by the story told.
The first child, Razan (all names were changed for privacy), is 7 years old and subject to hallucinations that make it impossible for her to gauge reality from fiction. She was pulled out of the rubble of an attack that killed her sister and also left her an orphan.
These aren’t details you get from her video below. Instead, you hear an observer’s perspective of her. Haser used ripping in this case to characterize a girl who seems to be vanishing inside her own mind.
Nine-year-old Hassan tells his own story. The photo of him shows his back to the camera—a poignant pose, given that he witnessed his father shot at blank range when fighters stormed their home. Here, paper crumples and his image duplicates to simulate a tremble, creating a sensation of instability underfoot.
“Working on each image, I selected different manipulation techniques to suit the different stories,” Haser explains.
“For example, ripping the images seemed fitting to represent anger, while folds … helped highlight anxiety or distress. It was important to keep the children’s individual experiences at the heart of the project. Throughout, I wanted the artwork to empower and bring to life, rather than take away.”
Ahmed was displaced in ISIS-controlled Raqqa when a bombing separated him from his mother. He is 9 years old but seems much older; the voice in his video explains that he witnessed beheadings and is today prone to violent outbursts. At night, he doesn’t sleep.
Nesreen is also 9. In her own words, she talks about Syria before and after the planes appeared. Her voice, high, bright and hopeful, makes room for optimism that she might have been spared some of the ugliness we’ve already heard. (She was not.)
“The aim of this project was to tell the Syrian story in a different way,” Ballon says. “I spoke with each child extensively and was struck by the resilience many of them displayed in the face of what they’d been through. Setting up the shots, I took a playful approach to the natural light, so that their personalities—as well as their psychological troubles—would come through in the portraits.”
Eight-year-old Mohammed describes the death of his father and the volatility of the world he left. “I just get upset,” he says. “I can feel my heart falling down.” The use of origami here sometimes makes his appearance kaleidoscopic; other times, those shards of image crowd the overall picture with a menace that almost seems to breathe.
The last of the portraits features 7-year-old Abbas and his 30-year-old mother Adira, who recounts her family’s voyage out of the country. “All I wanted was to reach Turkey and get treatment for my son,” she recalls. “I never know what goes on in his head … but I knew he was always afraid when he heard the bombs drop.”
Some 450 children, adolescents and adults in Syria were interviewed for Save the Children’s Invisible Wounds report (PDF link), which found children living in a constant state of fear. This has led to severe psychological consequences stemming from what mental health experts call “toxic stress”—a result of children experiencing strong, frequent or prolonged adversity.
A final video joins fragments from all six stories and will be used to promote the campaign online.
Four of the six children seen here—Ahmed, Razan, Mohammed and Hassan—are now living in a residential center for children and mothers near the Syria-Turkey border. They receive counseling from Save the Children partner Shafak.
Nesreen, Adira and Abbas also live near the border, with their families. They, too, receive psychological support, and Save the Children is helping them register with Turkish authorities for Temporary Protection permits. This will enable them to access services like healthcare and education. (Over 450,000 school-aged Syrian children in Turkey are unable to access education.)
Save the Children hopes its project will compel governments to demand an immediate ceasefire in Syria, and ideally negotiate an end to the conflict. Barring that, it hopes both sides will stop using explosive weapons in populated areas and attacking civilian infrastructures, including schools and hospitals.
It also demands an end to siege tactics and requests unrestricted humanitarian access to all areas.
None of this seems like much to ask. To support Save the Children, donors are invited to visit the website to learn more about the impact of war on kids.