THE DUST HUNG IN THE AIR.
BEFORE I EVEN STEPPED OUT OF THE LAND ROVER, I COULD FEEL THE SAND IN MY SHOES AND MY CLOTHES.
The air was dry just like the rest of the country. And in a place where turmoil had reared its ugly head for so long, it seemed as if the ground had begun to mimic the ways of its people.
My heart pounded in my chest, partly because men surrounded us with AK-47s and partly because the people we were visiting were so beautiful, and yet so lost. As our guards ushered us into the first IDP (Internally Displaced People) camp, our team began to separate. I kicked the dust around as I shifted in and out of the tents. Too weak to stand, a man laid down on a few pieces of cardboard. His bones sticking out of his dark skin, it was evident he would not make it past the end of the week. My colleagues wanted me to take a photo; I figured it was better to move on and lift up a silent prayer.
As a humanitarian photographer, my job is not just to capture a great photo; instead, I want to tell a story and capture dignity with every image. I did not come to get a cover photo on a national magazine; I was there to listen, to hear the cry of the people and catch, if even for just a second, a glimpse into their hearts. I wanted to open up my calloused heart long enough to cry with them and love them.
A WOMAN RUSHED UP TO ME WITH HER BABY BOY AND I FELT MY HEART EXPLODE.
The child could not stop coughing and his skin was rotting off. His mom looked at me and kept repeating something in Somali. My translator tried to explain but it was as if time had stopped.
Sound bounced off my ears and all I could do was pray for this sweet child—a child born into chaos, war and famine. I choked back the tears as I touched his tiny hand.
Back at the hotel, I found myself alone in silence; I began wondering why I had come. Was it in vain? Did I make a mistake? Thoughts danced around in my mind as I fell asleep waiting for another day.
The next morning our guarded guides took us to another camp. In a place where visitors are scarce, news travels fast that we have come. People emerge from their paper tents. Crowds start to form as they look for a sign of hope. Children laugh and gaze in anticipation. My heart gets a little too close to my chest.
I BEGAN TALKING TO A WOMAN NAMED FATIMA.
Standing tall with her seven grandchildren huddled around her, she explains how she is one of the lucky ones. They picked her for the food distribution that day and she will receive enough food to feed her family for a month.
While making faces at the kids and probing them for laughs, I notice a young woman in a bright pink hijab. Fatima introduces her as her niece, Fatixya. Fatixya smiles and approaches me cautiously.
I soon learn that she arrived in the refugee camp three weeks prior after walking for several days. Only a year older then me, she told me how she has two children and her husband recently left them. I notice she is pregnant, and ask her about her baby. She looks down at her covered round belly and says, “Yes. I am 8 months pregnant, and I am in a lot of pain.”
Knowing there are no hospitals or doctors on call, I ask her where she plans to have her child. She looks over her left shoulder at the camp across the street and says, “In my tent.” My heart breaks and tears well up as I try to imagine the pain she must feel.
But I notice something strange. She isn’t crying, she isn’t sad, and in fact, she’s almost laughing; she has a beautiful smile across her face. So I ask Hassan, my translator, why she is smiling.
He asks her, looks back at me, and says something I will never forget, “She smiles because you want to hear her story.”
I bow my head, part in prayer, and part in shame. My heart pounding, my eyes blurry, and my head spinning; what am I to do with that? I look up at Fatixya and smile. She may be smiling because I want to hear her story, but I’m smiling because she gave me hope. Hope for her people, hope for their openness to one day escape the heartache of war, famine, and oppression. Hope that when I go back home to my cozy bed and all-you-can-eat buffets that I will no longer be stagnant. Hope that her story can change the hearts of our Western comforts. Hope that one day I will return.
So until then I smile. Because our smiles hold a thousand words. It holds love and most importantly it holds the truth of something greater: that when times are tough we continue to press on. We strive to fight and push back the darkness. And whether we are fighting in refugee camps in Africa or in the suburbs of small towns, there is darkness everywhere, and we must fight.
While I only spent a few minutes with Fatixya it was enough to change my world. I glanced over my shoulder to answer a question from one of my colleagues, and by the time I turned back around she disappeared. I had my camera in hand, planning to take Fatixya’s portrait, but she was gone. No one could find her but I did happen to snap one photo of her before we talked.
It was all I had left of that conversation, but it was all I needed.