As a photographer, Sevilay Maria van Dorst relies on pictures from around the globe to stay on top of information events. But earlier this season, she found that despite all the harrowing pictures coming from this Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, she did not feel like she had a good grasp of what was unfolding out there. “I honestly was not sure what to think,” van Dorst, 32, says. “I thought, You know what? I’m likely to find myself what is going on. “
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So in early February, van Dorst packed her bags and left her home in Amsterdam to get Lesvos, Greece, an island broadly regarded as a ground zero for the crisis because of its place as a gateway to the rest of the continent. (Roughly 30,000 migrants came in there in February alone.) She made her way to the Moria refugee camp, which at the time had been home to about 4,000 refugees, in which the seriousness of the crisis was palpable. “In an instant, I knew things were worse than I had anticipated,” she states. “You notice their dread and a complete lack of understanding of what is going to occur. They have been moving from smuggler to smuggler, treated like creatures and another amount. But when I looked in their eyes, I realized they’d names, families, hopes, and fantasies. I thought, Oh, my God, you are not out of another world. You are me, and I’m you. “
“Once I looked in their eyes, I realized they’d names, families, hopes, and fantasies.”
Moved to assist in any way she could, van Dorst began teaching English to some of the kids through the camp’s chain-link fence, together with flip cards. (She had not obtained permission to work within the camp.) She had a handful of students on the very first day; over 70 people, including adults, also showed on the second. Eventually, the English courses evolved to photography courses. “I’m a photographer and an artist, therefore I look for answers through artwork,” says van Dorst. Soon, she had met with two other photographers, Oliver Zimmermann and Sebastian Gil Miranda, who’d also traveled to Lesvos to watch the crisis for themselves. Together, together with a translator, Amir Asadi, who had lately come to Greece as a refugee in Iran, they founded Inside Light, a project to educate young refugees photography as a way of boosting their sin.
Van Dorst teaches families English through the fencing at Moria refugee camp, May 2016
Over the next seven weeks, the Inside Lighting team passed disposable cameras under the fence and told the students, ages 9 to 16, to take photographs of beautiful things. “They see this location in a really negative manner, but once we ask them to look for things that are special, they start to understand their environment otherwise,” van Dorst explains. “You start to provoke positive thinking instead of, Oh, this is really lousy.” After the kids finished shooting, the photographers acquired their own pictures at a local store and returned to converse with them about their preferred sodas, while offering basic tips on makeup, light, and other methods. But in return, the kids shared stories of their lives back home. “It is remarkable to me how these refugees don’t have anything, but nevertheless wish to supply you with something, to teach you anything about their countries,” van Dorst states. So far, Inside Light has worked with over 50 kids; it intends to expand to other refugee camps in Greece and elsewhere the next year, and has established a fundraising effort.
What the kids decide to picture sometimes surprises van Dorst. After, a young boy whose dad had abandoned his family years ago was so enthused about a picture he had taken he pushed to his chest for several moments. After he finally set it down, van Dorst recognized he had taken a selfie. “Was this a mistake?” She inquired. “No,” he responded. “It is not a mistake–I’m beautiful.” The response made van Dorst speechless: “To understand he’d felt unlikable because his dad left and then see him told me I had done my job.”
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This Report appears in the December Problem of Marie Claire, on newsstands November 15.