New Beginnings: Finding Hope and Modern Skills Through Photography and Design

Speeches Shim

Monday, August 17, 2020
Credit: Re:Coded

Noor, a high school student living in the town of Bartella in the Ninewa Plains, had her world upended when the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) invaded her hometown of Bartella in August 2014 and forced her and her family to flee. For the first time, Noor found herself living in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp with her family alongside thousands of strangers. She was homeless, not in school, separated from her friends, and sometimes without enough money to get food and other basics. Noor described this experience as incredibly traumatic,

“I felt the loss of hope in my life when we left our home, our education, and our memories behind us. We were displaced overnight because of ISIS. There, the journey of our suffering began. I felt I had lost entire years of my life: that my twenties were to be hopeless.”

Even though Noor was displaced, she was motivated. Despite losing a year of her education, she completed high school in the IDP camp in Erbil. In October 2017, Bartella was liberated from ISIS and after nearly four years of being displaced, Noor’s family returned to Bartella. Noor was optimistic that there were organizations providing services to help those returning from displacement; however, Bartella hardly looked and felt like home to her. Noor’s family did not feel safe, they suffered from the lack of job opportunities, and she was traumatized by her memories of the past. But, as Noor explained, “life goes on and we had to keep going, too.”

In October 2019, Noor learned of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Digital and Life Skills training program in Qaraqosh - a nearby town she regularly visited to attend church and school. In partnership with the Baghdad Women Association (BWA) and Erbil-based tech company Re:Coded, USAID offered a 15-week course on graphic design, digital marketing, and photography to 27 women. The program also included life and jobs skills training, and case management services so women could confidentially discuss gender-based violence and discrimination, and learn about available resources.

"I won’t forget all my days during the program. But, the day that is most memorable to me is our first day that we went out for a photoshoot. It was the first time ever experiencing this kind of joy and friendship. I wondered what all the people would think looking at this group of women. I realized then that I had had a dream I never thought would come true and, suddenly, it was real.”

During portrait practice week, Noor explored taking a self-portrait through a broken mirror.
During portrait practice week, Noor explored taking a self-portrait through a broken mirror.
Credit: Noor

Noor reflected on why this course was different than the others she had tried. “First, I learned to design [social media] posts that expressed my personality, feelings, and needs. This was a transitioning point in my life which made me feel that I existed. I began to learn how to see life from another perspective full of hope. I started learning about the world of colors and design, and the world of creativity.”

Ten weeks into the program each student was asked to choose a specialization track: digital marketing or photography. Leaping at an opportunity to learn and practice with something new, Noor chose photography.

“The moment I held my camera …I learned to see the world through my camera lens and how I could adjust the settings of the camera to take the shot that I want.”

In March 2020, only a few weeks shy of graduation, COVID-19 restrictions brought the program to a halt. Classrooms shut down and students had to wait until they could pick up laptops and cameras. After safely delivering equipment to the women, Re:Coded moved the program online so Noor and her classmates could complete the final two weeks of the course from home. All 27 women in the class completed the program successfully and graduated in April 2020. Graduating into a pandemic is not easy, and Noor had to celebrate her successes with her peers and trainers through Facebook videos and posts in a private group rather than in person. Yet, despite a challenging job market amid a pandemic, Noor and her classmates are armed with their newfound digital skills, creativity and determination to secure modern and stable job opportunities.