Do you know that, in 2010, Syria was a peaceful and wealthy country, the land of several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, with a steadily growing tourism industry? Damascus, the capital, and Aleppo, were beautiful and lively places, with a strong traditon od trade and flourishing businesses. That was only seven years ago; today, whenever Syria is mentioned, it is war and refugees that first come to mind.

Aleppo residents internally displaced have begun to return.  Photos UNHCR
Aleppo residents internally displaced have begun to return. Photos UNHCR

Last month, the UNHCR launched a multimedia platform, developed in partnership with Google, that uses technology, data visualization, videos, maps and photos to reach to a global audience about the real situation in Syria. Using the latest trends in content marketing, the Searching for Syria website is more than a journalistic project – it’s an educational tool that answers the most asked questions put through to Google worldwide.

. What was Syria like before the war?

. What is happening in Syria?

. Who is a refugee?

. Where are Syrian refugees going?

. How can I help Syrian refugees?

A family walks across the desert terrain towards the Al Hol camp for refugees and displaced persons. Photos UNHCR
A family walks across the desert terrain towards the Al Hol camp for refugees and displaced persons. Photos UNHCR

“Searching for Syria aims to dispel myths and misconceptions about Syria and refugees and provide an entirely fresh look at the biggest humanitarian tragedy of today,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “This is a fantastic project with Google that allows us to pinpoint and answer the five key questions about Syrian refugees and displaced that audiences most want to know and help us rally much needed support and funding for our humanitarian effort.”

“We’re proud to work with the UNHCR to develop Searching for Syria to help raise awareness and inform the world on the human cost of the ongoing conflict and the refugee crisis,” said Jacquelline Fuller, Vice President of “The scale of the Syrian refugee crisis is difficult for most of us to fathom, but the questions on Searching for Syria are a reflection of many a people’s desire to understand. Among the top searches in Germany, France, and the UK last year was: What is happening in Syria?”

Jankidar, a 31 years old Syrian student who fled to Lebanon. Photo UNHCR
Jankidar, a 31 years old Syrian student who fled to Lebanon. Photo UNHCR

Through the platform, the audience learns interesting facts like the actual number of Syrian refugees and where they are fleeing to – mostly neighbouring countries like Iraq and Lebanon. The vast majority doesn’t go to Western Countries. The content is presented through short editorial passages, refugee profiles, photographs and videos. Users can also share content via social networks, donate or sign up to UNHCR’s #WithRefugees global petition asking the world leaders to ensure education for refugee children, adequate shelter and livelihoods for refugee families.

The “Searching for Syria” website is available in English, French, German and Spanish with an Arabic version soon to follow.

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Celebrated on August 19th, the World Humanitarian Day was a date to be remembered in 2016. Following the launch of a strong digital campaign called “Would you rather” whereby internet users had to figure themselves in the skin of refugees, the UN has also organized a concert to raise awareness of humanitarian assistance worldwide.

Jan Eliasson participates of wreath-laying ceremony to mark anniversary of UN Headquarters bombing in Baghdad
Jan Eliasson participates of wreath-laying ceremony to mark anniversary of UN Headquarters bombing in Baghdad

During the event, the UN Deputy Secretary-General, Jan Eliasson, called for increased global leadership to address humanitarian crises. “Today, the scale of human suffering is greater than any time since the United Nations was founded. A record 130 million people are now dependent on the United Nations and our many partners for protection and survival because of conflict, disaster or acute vulnerability. On World Humanitarian Day, let us all recommit to humanity and ask what we can each do to make a difference,” he said.

The World Humanitarian Day reminisces the August 19th 2003 bombing of the United Nations in Baghdad. Since 2008, the date celebrates the volunteers and professionals all around the world who risk their lives to build a better tomorrow. The UN efforts answer an increased demand for humanitarian actions – in 2016 only, 130 million women, men and children in 40 countries are in need of urgent assistance and protection: the highest number since the end of World War II.

“In crises around the world, from Syria to South Sudan, people are forced to make impossible choices – risking violence for food or risking drowning in search of a safe haven – choices that most of us can barely imagine,” warned UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O’Brien. “We call on all global citizens to show solidarity, use their voice and demand that world leaders take action.”

In the New York United Nations headquarters, a commemorative event was organized with the attendance of the renowned Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Game of Thrones” actress Natalie Dormer, “Arab Idol” winner Mohammed Assaf, Tony Award winner and former “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom Jr., “Quantico” actress Yasmine Al Massri and Season 10 “The Voice” winner Alisan Porter.

Lebanese actress Yasmine Al Massri introduces Hala Kamil, subject of the the documentary 'Children of Syria,' at the One Humanity event
Lebanese actress Yasmine Al Massri introduces Hala Kamil, subject of the the documentary ‘Children of Syria,’ at the One Humanity event

Syrian refugee Hala Kamil, who fled Aleppo with her four children to find safety in Germany, also shared her story, which became the subject of the film “Watani, My Homeland”, and called on world leaders to uphold their responsibilities to help the people who are forced to flee their homes. The call to action follows the World Humanitarian Summit, which took place in May in Istanbul, where the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon summoned global leaders to support Agenda for Humanity. The five-point plan highlights the changes we, as a society, need to promote to alleviate suffering, reduce risk and lessen vulnerability on a global scale. Governments, humanitarian organizations and the private sector heve committed to take actions to achieve the Agenda, although a funding shortage threatens humanitarian operations – the United Nations and its partners have received less than a third of the US$21.6 billion required to meet the most urgent needs in 2016.

In a night to remember, the UN, along with artists, personalities and refugees made the call – is the world ready to listen? Find more at

By Amma Aburam

Catching up with Reza is always a pleasure. The photographer is a humanitarian force, consistently using photo to change the lives of people around the world. With him, there is always something new to discuss. This time he tells us about projects: a recollection of stories and photographic plans, never picked randomly but always made to have an impact on the people who participate in, see and share them.

One of his on-going projects that he brings to life through various initiatives as time goes by is called A Dream of Humanity. The idea is to have an umbrella term for his various humanitarian endeavors that take place in different parts of the world. His most famous initiative is called Exile Voices, which consists of giving cameras to children in refugee camps to take photos of their daily lives, joys and struggles. Exile voices is a project he aims to pursue for the next five years.

"Frozen Shoes" - Photo by Maya Rostam, Exiled Voices project
“Frozen Shoes” – Photo by Maya Rostam, Exile Voices project

Reza is currently working on an interactive book around the theme of Afghanistan Peace Warriors. He believes that the Internet with all its tools is an important vector of connection and knowledge. He reckons its ability to help reach millions of people with an idea is priceless. “The book is a way to link Afghanistan to the modern world, to move it away from its traditional cultural biases and ancient stories”, he explains. The book is a way to reach Afghan as well as global citizens, hence its multilingual and interactive approach designed to allow readers to engage, explore and grow their knowledge.

"Reconstruction" - © Reza
“Reconstruction” – © Reza

Another project seeks to engage the youth on current social issues. “I love Nature, I hate Pollution” is a competition created and launched by Reza in 2012 also titled Children’s Eyes on Earth. It does not only aim to raise children’s awareness of ecological issues but also to teach them about the power of photography. “I believe that 15 years ago, to be a photographer you had to have a reputation and the means to buy the material, as well as the ability to learn techniques. Today’s generation has access to limitless technologies like smartphones and I-pads to take photos” he states. For him, this can make photography trivial at times. His project is to show children that some themes and issues are so important that you can use your smartphone camera for more than just taking selfies. “It is important to have the youth know this, and to train them about it at a young age”, he adds. The competition aspect is simply to make it more exciting for them; kids love its game aspect and engage fully because of that. When I launched the project, kids from 90 countries participated; they all proved their creativity, curiosity and enthusiasm about nature and environmental issues “At the end of the day, adults see these photos and get a unique insight on how kids view their surroundings. From the refugee camp to this competition, it is easy to see that kids have a photographic eye that influences people differently”, he adds.

Reza has travelled the world and his photos have focused on various peoples, in struggles and in joys. One of his series focused on farmers in Morocco and their stories. This was in support of an NGO called AgreSud, which lacked funds while supporting agriculture in various places in the world. Reza’s humanitarian work extends to NGOs such as this one and his photos allow for the stories of these peoples to be told.

"The Frame" - © Reza
“The Frame” – © Reza

Similarly, he photographed women in Rwanda in a series called Words of Rwandan Women, as part of a project on women and their role in shaping the future of humanity. “I believe the world would be a much better place if women where in domains and positions of power and decision-making: in politics, communications, education and more”, he says. “War is the affair of men, just as we see males in various species battle things out. Women are mothers, nurturers, they give life so they don’t want to take it away”, he adds. In Rwanda and Burundi specifically, he was working on a before, during and after the genocide conflicts photo documentation. The women in these series have untold stories, one of them being about those who were raped during these conflicts. These women decided to keep their children despite the circumstances and were rejected by their families, tribes and friends, kicked out of their communities and villages. Once their tragic stories told through this series and in New York Magazine, many NGOs felt called to action and went out there to help them.

With Reza, there is no underestimation of the power of photojournalism and its endless impact on communities and lives. He has a real heart for helping others and using his talent to bring positivity to the world.

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