Reflections on Photographing Syrian Refugees in Calgary

  By Leah Hennel

A few of them wondered why it was such a big deal. Cameras were clicking, recorders running, bright lights shining, reporters questioning – as soon as Syrian Refugees made their way down the airport escalator.

I found myself wondering how I would’ve handled the same situation, fleeing my homeland with nothing but the clothes on my back, and worrying about my loved ones. My first meeting with the newcomers took place a year ago when they arrived at the Calgary International Airport.

A couple of things struck me on that December night. For instance, the number of locals that were present to warmly greet the Refugees surprised me. There were “Welcome To Canada” signs, bags of winter clothing, and toys for the kids, and plenty of smiles for everyone. Some of the refugees even had family members, already established in Calgary, on hand to welcome them, hugging and crying.

Shortly after that introduction at the airport, Calgary Herald reporter Annalise Klingbeil and I discovered that most of the government-sponsored refugees were being housed at a budget hotel. Over the course of a few weeks, I documented the lives – and the adjustment – of the families. I made sure to keep my camera on silent mode and spent more time observing and making everyone comfortable with me before I even started photographing.

Using one camera and lens helped me be less intrusive and, let’s face it, just easier to move around faster. Members of Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS) set up a makeshift office in the hotel to help support the newcomers. Other rooms were utilized as classrooms. Kids, laughing, could be seen running through the hallways, but they also got frequent field trips – for instance, to the zoo and nearby sports facilities. One outing took the kids to a magic show, put on by the Green Fools. The children were thrilled.

One of the moms told me, through an interpreter, that this was first time she’d heard her son laugh in a long time. There was a language gap – my Arabic is non-existent – but children always wanted to check out my cameras. I was curious about them as well and wanted to understand more about their culture and what they wanted to do now that they had escaped a war-torn country.

I also followed some of the refugees who, after staying at the hotel, moved to a condo complex in Forest Lawn. With 30 families living there, it came to be known affectionately as Little Syria. There I met Fatima – a single mom with four kids – who left Syria in April 2013 and arrived in Canada in January 2016. In between, she was in refugee camps in Lebanon. Her husband had been killed in Homs, Syria, by sniper fire when out buying bread, in 2011.

I felt a special connection with Fatima and her family because of their own laid-back and welcoming nature, offering me tea and coffee. Through a translator, we joked around. One night, the 30-year-old offered to cook dinner for me. Even though I often felt I was intruding, families opened their doors and wanted to tell their stories. Some were too shy for photos. But, after getting used to my gear and I, they relented. Lately, on my visits, the grown-ups’ command of English had become much better. That makes everything easier for them, including having a nosey photographer in their homes. I do have to respect the culture. Some of the young women, when I show up unexpectedly, rush off to put on hijabs.

About the photographer:
Leah Hennel is a photojournalist and documentary photographer/filmmaker based in Calgary, Alberta.

“I can’t believe I get paid to take pictures. I’ve been doing it for 19 years and no two days have been the same. My camera has taken me all over Alberta, to most parts of Canada, to Europe and Africa. The Calgary Herald has been my home base for over a decade, it’s my day job and I like it but photography is my passion, I’d feel naked without a camera in my hand. I love photographing everything but especially my son. I’m a born and bred Alberta girl and I love the prairies, the mountains are OK, too.”

You can find more of her work via:
The Calgary Herald

Click below to view her photo story.