Six years ago their lives were turned upside down after a military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Now three young refugees are finding new purpose in life, armed with mobile phones and access to Instagram.
Azimul Hasson, Dil Kayas and Omal Khair all have one thing in common; a passion for telling stories. Chosen to document their lives in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, the largest refugee camp in the world, their work now features at the biennial Tasweer Photo Festival Qatar.
Their insight into camp life, is as authentic as it comes. Stills capture the heart-breaking difficulties of living in the camp, as well as the lighter moments.
But what’s really striking about this project is the way it’s giving young women a chance to show off their skills. Omal, 18, explains that in Rohingya culture, women are not allowed to study.
“They don’t think that education is important for females, just only important for males,” she says. “Without education we can’t change our communities.” And change is something Omal wants to not just see, but to personally enact.
Omal has been receiving an education, but that’s solely down to the support of her father. “I’m educated, that’s why I am doing photography and also I am updating my people all over the world, so that the world can know our situation,” she explains.
She talks passionately about more girls having access to education. Omal hopes the work she’s doing, essentially as a community reporter, resonates with young girls, helping them realise they too, can strive for more in life.
Snapshots fill the walls at the M7 innovation and start-up hub in Doha’s Msherib district. Tiles that flash with colourful moments. Daily routines from washing to children playing, feel fresh and inviting.
It’s this, which feels substantially different from the images of refugee camps taken by journalists. The project, a collaboration between Doha Debates and the NGO, Fortify Rights, was designed exactly with that in mind.
“Our team was actually on the go in 2017 when the group of Rohingya’s were fleeing to Bangladesh,” Vanessa Chong, Director of Fortify Rights says. “We did see a lot of people parachuting into the camps…and that’s something that’s really important for journalism. But we also see the potential of refugees themselves in having that ability to document what’s happening in daily life.”
Vanessa also believes by handing refugees this chance, the perspective isn’t one of single moment, it’s slow transformation. “The constant taking of photos is that it's a projection of life over a period of time. And I think that's something that's very valuable and something that's really, really precious for this project,” she adds.
Like many stories, the tale of Rohingya’s fleeing persecution filled the headlines in the early days. But news cycles come and go quickly. Their story feels stuck in some regards, with little focus now on it, except when new disaster strikes.
At the beginning of March that’s exactly what happened. A fire tore through part of the camp destroying homes, health and educational facilities. Bringing back the spotlight on the long-term crisis Rohingya refugees are still facing, is one of the reasons the biennial Tasweer Photo Festival Qatar decided to showcase this project.
“You know, many things happen in the world and everybody needs help, and this is a time, I think, to come back to this,” explains Director of the Photo Festival, Khalifa Al Obaidly. “We would like to raise the awareness…let the even younger generation to know the truth from this exhibitions.”
He says the power of the art produced by these three young individuals is already having an impact. “One lady was crying when she saw all these images… when you come here and you sit with these images and you hear the sound, it’s putting you in the situation there.”
‘Exodus’, a documentary of the lives of Azimul, Dil and Omal accompanies their photographs, screening on a loop. In it, they have the chance to outline their dreams first-hand. They are a hazy mix of wanting to have a better life for themselves and those around them, to return home…but also to have ‘thousands of followers on Instagram’.
It’s a way to reach people, to connect directly with them and to make sure in some small way, the world is aware that they are continuing to suffer.
The 2023 Tasweer Photo Festival Qatar runs between 15 March - 20 May at M7, Doha. https://tasweer.org.qa/en/
You can follow the photographers on Instagam: