Meals eaten in tents or during the arduous journey from Syria to Europe. The struggle for food amid an uncertain future. These are among the moments being captured in photographs by a Japanese activist and aid worker hoping to bring awareness to the plight of the 11 million people displaced by the five-year Syrian civil war.
Keiko Tamura, 46, who has worked for some 15 years with international groups providing humanitarian aid in the Middle East and Africa, said she is angered by media reports that often label Syrians as merely “refugees,” depicting them as people flooding other regions, not as individuals who have names and faces.
“No one is born a refugee; displacement isn’t foreign to any nation, it’s something we have experienced or might experience at any time, any place,” Tamura told The Japan Times.
She said the recent Kyushu earthquakes, which claimed many lives and homes, was a reminder that a disaster, whether natural or driven by war, could strike any one of us.
Tamura has been offering psychosocial support to Syrian children since 2002 during her work in countries including Jordan and Lebanon under programs aimed at peace-building and disarming militant factions.
Last fall, she visited the cities of Izmir, Gaziantep and Antakya in Turkey, near the Syrian border, as well as Budapest after Hungary opened its border to Syrians last year.
She has exhibited photographs of Syrians accompanied by their stories in Tokyo, Hokkaido, Yokohama and Iwaki in Fukushima Prefecture. She also writes a blog in Japanese, English and French titled “From Syrian Kitchens.”
Mostly, the photographs focus on food, such as a Syrian family gathering around a table for a meal that Tamura said was abundant in spices and flavors.
The stories reflect the real lives of Syrians — full of struggles, memories, raw emotions and dreams.
She recalled the story of a family she met in Izmir. After paying $150 each to cross the border into Turkey, a couple and their three children lived on a street in front of a local mosque, awaiting their chance to move toward a better future.
The family was forced to walk through the Kurdish mountains before crossing to Turkey via Syria’s coastal Latakia province. When she met them they were looking for brokers who could help them get to Greece.
Tamura recalled that when she offered them financial aid for their children, the couple refused, saying they were not beggars.
When Tamura met the family, Yumen, the wife, was spreading feta cheese on pita bread, preparing sandwiches for breakfast with fresh cucumbers. She offered one to Tamura.
“No matter how difficult their situation is, you can’t walk away from a Syrian family without them sharing their food,” she said.
Before the civil war they enjoyed healthy home cooking, Tamura said, but the conflict led to hyperinflation resulting in food prices so high that for over one year Yumen couldn’t afford ingredients for meals she liked to cook for the children.
Refugees Tamura has met include a university student, teachers, a doctor, a construction worker, a mining engineer who studied and worked in Austria and Germany, and a taxi driver.
They were fathers and mothers struggling to feed and educate their children, she said.
Tamura said Syria’s image is mistakenly associated with the conduct of Islamic State group militants, who in large part come from neighboring countries, when in reality Syrians are the most affected and are trying to flee from the militants.
She described Syrians as proud and well-educated, unwilling to depend on aid; people who want to support their families and return home once the conflict is over.
“All of them had work, they want to be independent,” she said.
Syria’s pro-democracy uprising erupted on March 15, 2011, four days after a powerful quake hit Japan’s Tohoku region. The strife escalated into a civil war that has led to the deaths of more than 250,000 Syrians and forced some 11 million from their homes.
Tamura said people in Japan’s disaster-hit areas share the same experience as Syrians of being robbed of their homes and loved ones. She said in times of crisis all people have the same struggles to put food on the table. “Is there any difference between ‘our’ experiences and ‘their’ experiences?” she asked.