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Linked by Mobile Phones, Syrian Refugees Stay Connected

Liam Maloney

Photographer Liam Maloney spent two years documenting the lives of Syrian refugees. His project Texting Syria, an interactive collection of photographs and video, examines the role mobile phones play in the attempt to stay connected to friends, families, and communities in a time of conflict. Below, he tells the story of one such family, similar to those in his project, impacted by the crisis.

Sometimes, seven-year-old Aysam ties the front legs of his stuffed horse together. “Like they do in Syria,” he says. When the violence reached their neighborhood outside Damascus, Aysam and his family fled to Lebanon. The family rents a makeshift apartment in the attic of a building in Aley, a small city outside Beirut. The move has taken its toll on them.

Back home, Aysam’s father Mahmoud had been a skilled carpenter, but in Lebanon he struggled to find any work at all. His wife Moamna began noticing changes in her husband’s behavior. He was forgetting things, and became prone to violent outbursts.

One night, he came home beaten and bloodied. He had been roaming the streets, cursing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the top of his lungs. Eventually, a doctor diagnosed him with an acute neurodegenerative disease. Unable to afford medical care in Lebanon, he returned to Damascus to seek treatment. Moamna thinks the stress of the war and the struggle they faced in Lebanon precipitated his illness.

She now struggles to raise three children on her own, with no income beyond the $76 she receives in aid from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) every month. It’s not enough. The local mosque helps a little with food and clothing. The children have never attended school. Aysam is afraid to leave the house. The last time he ventured outside, the local children made fun of his father and pushed him around.

After he was hospitalized, Mahmoud tried to stay in touch with his family in Lebanon by phone. Often, Moamna couldn’t understand what he was saying—his words were garbled and didn’t make sense. The last time they spoke, he was frantically asking about their youngest daughter. Screaming, he said he had seen her murdered and lying in the street. Moamna can’t bear to answer the phone anymore.

As of May 25, UNHCR has counted 4,844,111 Syrian refugees. Around a quarter of them are in Lebanon, and evidence suggests that there are hundreds of thousands more uncounted. Most have no hope of returning home while the conflict rages into its sixth year. Lebanon now has more refugees per capita than any country in the world.

The numbing statistics that measure the scale of the Syrian crisis don’t capture the torment of families like Aysam’s. They don’t illustrate the friendships lost, marriages destroyed, or ambitions crushed in the sickening vacuum that immediately follows a rocket strike. War is personal, and behind the numbers that shelter us from the true tragedy of this conflict are millions of stories, any one of which could keep us awake long after we turn out the lights.

That’s why in Lebanon, I turned my lens towards refugees using their mobile phones to stay in touch with their families under siege in Homs, Syria. My installation Texting Syria explores the lives of Syrian refugees in the context of connectivity in the digital age.

My goal is to create an immersive experience that offers viewers a degree of intimacy often missing from media coverage. Through my work, I also question the expectations we have of documentary photography by considering parallel narratives that images alone cannot adequately represent.

Texting Syria is featured in Moving Walls 23: Journeys, and will be displayed at Photoville, an outdoor exhibition in Brooklyn, New York, September 21-25. Moving Walls is an annual exhibit produced by the Open Society Documentary Photography Project.

See Liam Maloney’s photographs from Moving Walls 23.

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