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Vancouver summer camp empowers Syrian children to tell their own stories, however they want to tell them

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Constructing Change speaks to people working in communities to be the change, to build projects, to make a difference.  The interviews and profiles are meant to share information about how to get involved to support and amplify the changemakers' work and/or to share how you can organize a similar project in your community.  The Constructing Change series is a collaboration between the Lynn Williams Activist Toolkit and Rabble Podcast Network.

In early August, 2016, Simon Fraser University masters student Shawk Alani worked with colleagues like photographer Nawar Tawami to organize "Capturing Our Stories," a photography summer school and exhibition, a series of workshops for Syrian children who have recently arrived in Vancouver. A recent story by CBC details the project.  The Activist Toolkit interviewed Shawk as part of the Constructing Change project, where we examine great initatives and talk about them as organizers -- asking how they were conceived and how they worked.

If you want to see some images from the workshop and exhibiton, click here for an album of photographs Shawk shared with us.

Activist Toolkit: Could you tell me more about the summer camp project -- the name, how many people are involved and how the days at camp are organized? 

Shawk Alani: The project is called "Capturing Our Stories" and consisted of a series of workshops held at SFU Woodwards during the month of August 2016. Eight kids between the ages of 6-12 participated in learning basic photography skills and concepts like framing, lighting, subject, angles etc. by four instructors: Nawar Tamawi, Meego Yassin, Sara McIntyre and myself. The program was co-facilitated by the SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement and MAP -- Moving Ahead Program which is a program that provides settlement support to immigrant and refugee families and is run by the social service agency S.U.C.C.E.S.S.

Each of the workshops was structured differently in terms of activities. The kids generally started their mornings in class practicing with different lighting and inanimate subjects indoors. Then they went outside in small groups and practiced photographing street life, each other, architecture and exploring the world around them. After a lunch break and some running around and playtime, the kids talked about the new concepts they learned that day and reflect on their own photographs, if we had developed prints from a previous workshop day.

AT: How did you conceive of the project and how was it funded?  Can you offer some advice to others who may want to launch similar projects in other parts of the country?

Alani: I knew I had energy and capacity to organize a project this summer and looked around me to see what resources I could be inspired by. I had recently met Nawar, who has been photographing beautiful images of Iraq on social media to counter the images of devastation and lifelessness that have been circulating in the media since the invasion and occupation of the country. I knew that the idea that we can respond to stereotypes using simple tools and a shift in perception of who owns our stories can make a profound difference.

Mainstream interest in refugee lives comes with a long list of prescribed fantasies about their experiences. Creating a space where kids have agency to actualize their imagination on their own terms felt like the most important things to try to do.

Putting together a set of workshops to achieve the goal started with gathering the artistic people around me, Nawar (a photographer), Sara (a filmmaker), Meego (a designer) and we bounced ideas off of each other until we reached the final structure. I  got an opportunity to propose the idea to the director of community engagement at SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement and they gave me the funding to pursue the project. After that, it was many hours spent at the computer sending out emails to social service agencies and putting together information sheets, workshop timelines, working out logistics and of course the fun part of buying cameras and material.

The advice I would give to anyone who wants to launch any sort of small scale project is to trust yourself when you have an idea, and just go for it. Focus on doing things that are deeply meaningful even if they are small; doing work that becomes popular or large-scale is not always an indication that it is valuable.

Surround yourself with people who have similar values to you, talk to them, refine your idea and ask for help when you need it! Make things work with a smaller budget than you have, to account for unanticipated costs; be creative and use what is already available, easy accessible and local etc. Appreciate all the people who are helping you, and don't forget that the most important thing is developing human connections, growing, learning and enjoying the moment, not getting media coverage! Seriously. Stay organized and stay nourished. Infuse your work with love.

I am happy to share all the documents I have created if others want to replicate this particular project or use the templates I've made for other projects! (Editor's note: If you would like to contact Shawk to learn more and to replicate the project contact [email protected])

AT: You and Nawar have been involved in using literature, art and photography to change the imagining of Iraq.  How has that shaped this project? What are some things that surprised you and changed how you saw the world the children inhabit?

Alani: I think in the beginning you're motivated to do this kind of work to respond to the outside world. But after a while it becomes a much more complicated process; a journey towards understanding the self, almost. It's impossible to say that I only organized the readings of Iraqi literature to confront an audience, I think confronting my own anxieties became central to that project. With these workshops, I know some of the motivation was, in a similar way, about recreating those moments that were formative for building my own confidence and realizing myself as a whole person. 

To be honest, I didn't have expectations from the kids before meeting them. I think this was part of not wanting to impose anything on them. They were just kids being kids, not very different from any other kids I had met before. They all had so much of energy, endless curiosity, and the ability to make anything and everything an absolutely hilarious game or joke.

AT: Could you share some of what the participants have said about this project and how it has helped them?

Alani: We all -- the instructors -- got countless enthusiastic high fives, and running across the hallway for massive hugs and thank yous. I think all the kids had fun. I wouldn’t be able to tell you how it has helped them, that's for them to decide. Growth and change are more so a result of reflecting on experiences, not just going through them. I hope that this becomes significant in their future reflections. 


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