The nongovernmental organization Still I Rise, which is based in Italy, was founded in 2018 to address the need to educate and support minors living in the Samos Hotspot, the refugee camp on the island of Samos, Greece. It was, in the beginning, a youth center called Mazí, created to offer children and adolescents “education, food, therapy and a safe place to escape from the horrors of the camp.” It then became a school model to “rehabilitate traumatized and deprived minors by providing them the opportunity to secure a better future for themselves.” As the initiative has grown, so has the need for it in many countries. There are schools in three places—Samos Greece, Northwest Syria and Kenya, with more nationally accredited schools set to open in Colombia and Italy. In Mathare Slum in Nairobi, the participants come from eight different African countries.
This exhibition is the offshoot of a photography project begun in the schools. Children are taught to use cameras to record their daily lives. In lieu of titles, each child has written text about the photograph or about his or her wishes for the future. For example, a lovely image by fifteen-year-old Mariam, living in a refugee camp in Syria, says, “This snow has fallen from above. I hope it cleans our world.” And in another by Mariam, “A person cannot be blamed for his poverty or because he has no power. All of these peoples’ secrets are exposed like these clothes spread outside,” beneath a photograph of drying clothing. Tammam, also fifteen, captured an image of his tent-city. Beneath the photograph, he is quoted, “I had a home, but now only a tent is my shelter. I had a city but now this camp is my city.”
In Samos Island, the children also have dreams. Samaneh, who is sixteen, says, “In the country I come from, women can’t drive scooters because they risk jail time. In Europe it’s different, women have rights! Rights that I also want to have one day,” under her image of a woman on a scooter in a Greek town. The camera has already changed lives and given hope—Hala, in Syria, has realized that she wants to be a photojournalist when she grows up, to tell the world what is happening in Syria. “My life hasn’t changed,” she says, “I still live in a tent, but what has changed is the way I face life. Now, when I wake up in the morning, I have a goal to pursue.”
In the end, each child receives a disposable camera of his or her own to describe their life outside of school. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this exhibition is a full encyclopedia of refugee children’s lives, aspirations and dreams.
“Through Their Eyes” is on view at the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago, 500 North Michigan, through October 8.
All photos courtesy of the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago.