Photographer Hopes To Put Face On Syrian Statistics

Dec 3, 2013
Originally published on December 3, 2013 3:19 pm

Elena Dorfman recently returned after a six-month assignment for the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency.

She was sent to take portraits of Syrian refugees who have fled their country because of the civil war. Over two million Syrians have registered as refugees with the U.N., and over 700,000 of them have settled in Lebanon, where Dorfman spent most of her time.

In the course of her project, Dorfman was struck particularly by the young adults she met. One of the young Syrian refugees she met, a 19-year-old named Hani, left an indelible impression on her.

I want to be able to believe that what I saw in them can be conveyed through the photographs.
–Elena Dorfman

“Hani was such a bright star,” Dorfman told Here & Now’s Robin Young. “He’s incredibly interested in what’s going on in the world, and what’s going on outside of his very small tented world at the moment.”

There are no organized settlement in Lebanon, so refugees are creating shelter wherever they can. One of the families she met lived in an active slaughterhouse.

On what kind of impact she hopes her photographs will have, Dorfman says, “I want people to be able to connect with the kids. I want to be able to believe that what I saw in them can be conveyed through the photographs … I just want the kids not to be a statistic.”

Dorfman shares some of her photos in the slideshow above, as well as a portrait of Hani, below. You can also hear some of the interviews Dorfman conducted with the young adults she met, below.

Translation: I’m 24-years-old. I am from Homs in Syria. My story? I was studying law and I was very successful in my studies. And I was the head of my class at the end of this year. Unfortunately, because of the situation, I moved away from my studies. And it has been very painful and annoying because I considered my education very precious. Really. I am very, very, very annoyed. The ones who are seeking education are most affected during Syria’s events. The middle class is the group who was working in Syria to secure their daily living; only to secure their daily living, that’s it. They did not ask for more. They did not work toward building palaces, or something else. They wanted to secure a life for their children. This group is the most affected one. I am noticing here, from Lebanon, I am noticing the middle class.And I am one of them. They make you cry, those are the ones who are affected.

They left their houses, even if they were simple houses. I used to live in a very classy house, very beautiful. Not like here. I am being trapped here. I sleep in the same room as my sisters. My freedom is limited.

I used to live in a big house, have my own room. I used to go out, whenever I wanted, come back whenever I wanted. Here our freedom is very limited. It is true that i am a young man. Here, I go out in Lebanon, but I am not having my freedom like I had it in Syria.

Translation: I am 18 years-old. I was in 11th grade in Syria. I came here [to Lebanon] because of the shelling. We couldn’t bear the shelling. I came here w my relatives. My immediate family stayed in Syria. Now i have brothers here. We did not come together here. Each one of us came alone. I still have part of my family there in Syria.

Right now I am here, continuing my study here in Lebanon to ease the pain we faced in Syria. The only thing that makes it easier on us here is going to school. School reduces the pain but it does not take it away.

We need to finish our study and to follow our ambition, to achieve our dream and our country’s dream.

In Syria, my ambition was … I don’t know sometimes; I feel it is a dream. But I won’t give it up and nothing will harm it. My dream is to finish school, and go to a good college and become an engineer, a doctor, or a pharmacist. Just to have my family be proud of me.

Translation: I hope … I’d like to go back right now before tomorrow comes to finish my school. Not everyone understands the meaning of the word homeland. The homeland is everything; it is very valuable. It is all that we have. It is part of our bodies.

Of course, I’m still hopeful. We have faith in God. We shouldn’t give up the hope to return home. But right now we should live our life here. We should keep moving in our life here, and when we return, we will bring back our life that we left.

Translations by Nidal Al-Azraq.


  • Elena Dorfman, a photographer who was on assignment for the UNHCR. She tweets @elenadorfman.
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Over two million Syrians have registered with the U.N. as refugees of that country's civil war. Of those, over 800,000 are in Lebanon. We've reported on how that's raised tensions, many of the refugees arriving in neighborhoods that are strongholds for the militant group Hezbollah which is backing the very regime in Syria that is driving the refugees out.

Yesterday, residents of a village in the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon set fire to an informal refugee camp, forcing hundreds of Syrians to flee even further, the Lebanese saying that residents of the camp raped a man, a doctor saying he saw no evidence, the spiral continues. Elena Dorfman was recently in the Bekaa Valley on a six-month long photography assignment for the UNHCR, that's the U.N.'s refugee agency.

She was taking portraits of Syrians displaced by the war and spent most of her time in Lebanon. Her portraits on The New Yorker's photography blog caught our eye, and we'll post them at, as Elena joins us. Welcome. And I have the portrait of one young man here in front of me. He looks a little dazed. He's sitting on a mat in what looks like a wooden structure, and he's got an Adidas shirt on. What am I seeing here?

ELENA DORFMAN: Well, he's definitely a teenager, so he has an Adidas shirt on. But he's sitting in a tent where his family - he and his family live in - just on the roadside in the southern part of Lebanon. And his name is Hani, and I met him while I was visiting this informal, tented settlement.

YOUNG: Well - and he's got - it looks like a smartphone or a tablet and his glasses right next to him.

DORFMAN: He has a mobile phone, which I didn't find often. But he did have a cellphone that he was able to use and glasses because, in fact, he's going blind.

YOUNG: And glasses, also, they are a metaphor for something else as well. He has ambitions, academic ones. Let's listen to him describe what his ambitions were before the war.

HANI: My ambition was to be a doctor. In reality, yeah, I want to be a doctor there or engineer - engineer of the architecture or something. I think the last two years had destroyed my ambition a little bit. But there's a hope. There's a life.

YOUNG: How old is Hani?

DORFMAN: He's 19. And he was really a pretty extraordinary kid, and I was so lucky to have found him. He communicated with me in English, obviously, whereas most of the kids spoke in Arabic, and I had to work through a translator. But Hani was such a bright star, really. And he was such a magnet for me, personally. He was cultured and educated and carried his books with him, which was very unusual. I had not met, really, I don't think, another teenager who had been able to take their books with them.

YOUNG: Right. Well, but as you said, he's losing his sight because he can't get medical care. And I'm not sure what he's doing with those books because you remind us that a lot of the kids in these camps - I mean, these are critical times, 17 and 19 years old, and a lot of kids in these camps can't go to school in Lebanon. The classes in many schools are taught in French?

DORFMAN: French and English, exactly. The curriculum in Lebanon does not match the curriculum in Syria. So almost no kids have - they are - there's very little educational opportunity for the kids. But Hani did bring his books, and he studied, and he learned, and he continued to stay as motivated as he possibly could given the surroundings.

YOUNG: Well, stay with him for just a second because you say in the beginning of your trip, you were hearing things like as soon as we go back. And then towards the end of the trip, you were hearing people say, well, here's what we need to do here. It's sort of a resignation that they're not going back soon?

DORFMAN: Yeah. It was really a big change from March till September. In the beginning, as you said, there was - we'll go back tomorrow or when we can go back. And toward the end of my stay, early September, people were figuring out how to cope with where they were living and what they were going to do considering that was going to be their home for as long as they could imagine.

YOUNG: Do you - I mean, he had a phone. Do you - can you stay in touch with Hani? Do you know...

DORFMAN: Yes. In fact, I do stay in touch. We (unintelligible). And I let him know through people who are still in Lebanon what's happening and how I am. And he's incredibly interested in what's going on in the world and what's going on outside of his very small tented world at the moment. He's really a curious kid and great - of great intelligence.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, and there's another picture here. Here's a young woman. Her head covered with a pink scarf, wearing a long denim skirt, and yet that's all she has?

DORFMAN: That is all she has. I met her and her younger sister in a, again, another informal settlement outside of Beirut. I always ask what we were able to bring, what could you take with you, is there anything that you have? And both she and her sister said, what we're wearing is what we took four months ago. We've been in these same clothes for four months. And this is it. This tiny room, which they shared with seven other people, that was the extent of their universe at the moment.

YOUNG: Here's another picture. A little baby using for his crib a wooden crate, another of - looks almost like a tree house that somebody's slapped together with wood.

DORFMAN: I focused a lot for a long time on where refugees live. Especially in Lebanon where there are no formal settlements, people really have to do it themselves and find places to live. So I found many families in many different situations, but this family in particular was living in an active slaughterhouse. And this little baby was just behind the slaughterhouse, and the kids were just steps from where the pelts of the animals where being dried.

And there were many, many people living in rooms. This is what I found over and over again: enormously crowded spaces, tiny spaces that are very crowded. And the baby, you know, you have to make do with what you have. If you have a crate, you stick your six-month-old baby in it. If you have a can, you cook in it. It's pretty basic living.

YOUNG: You know, reading some of the things you've said about the trip, it seems like it is diaspora, but it's not dystopia. It's people working with each other, not turning against each other?

DORFMAN: Well, for sure. With the Syrians, that's what I found. I was really struck by how connected people were and how much they tried to help each other. And if there were eight people from different families and they knew each other and three people were working, they continued to support the other five who couldn't until the - someone from the rest of the group could contribute. It's really a lot of people working together and sheltering each other and helping each other. And even, I have to say, in Lebanon, a lot of the Lebanese are extending themselves greatly and opening their homes to refugees all over the Middle East where the - all over the host countries. There's enormous pulling together. Of course, there's also trouble with having so many refugees being dropped into the neighboring countries. But I think for the most part, there's great sympathy.

YOUNG: Yeah. What do you want these pictures to do? I mean, they're disturbing. They make human what's a statistic. But what else do you hope these pictures do?

DORFMAN: I want people to be able to connect with the kids. I want to believe that what I saw in them can be conveyed through the photographs or through Hani's conversation and that somehow people can connect and can - begin to grasp a little bit about what's going on there, if they can help in any way, financially, or sending books or whatever they can do. In any case, I just wanted the kids not to be a statistic, to bring a more human face to all these numbers of refugees that people hear about.

YOUNG: Must have been hard for you to leave.

DORFMAN: It was hard. It was a really intense experience. I really grew to like the people very, very much, and really had my own eyes opened.

YOUNG: That's Elena Dorfman, a photographer, who just returned from an assignment from the high commissioner for refugees in the U.N. Six months of taking portraits of Syrian refugees. And we'll post some of them at

Elena, thanks so much.

DORFMAN: Thank you.


YOUNG: And also at we'll have Elena's interviews and a link to her. You can donate to the UNHCR's Syrian refugee effort. Remember, it is Giving Tuesday.


From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.