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At Mills, Portraits of Teen Syrian Refugees Humanize Conflict

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Dvaa, 16, Tripoli, Lebanon, 2013.  (Elena Dorfman)

“I miss everything. I miss my friends so much. I miss the street. I miss my teachers; my school,” says Hany Al Moulia. “I miss my coffee with the birds.”

Al Moulia is one of 15 teenage Syrian refugees featured in photojournalist Elena Dorfman’s 2013 portrait series Syria’s Lost Generation, currently on view at the Mills College Art Museum. In Dorfman’s photograph, the then–19-year-old sits in a tent in the camp where he lived at the time in Madjel Anjar, Lebanon. With his limbs angled slightly, as if subtly bracing himself, he peers pensively ahead.

“I’m a writer and I promised myself that I will not write anything here,” Al Moulia tells Dorfman in the accompanying audio interview. “I don’t want to have any feelings or any emotions here.”

I’tmad, 19, Saidon, Lebanon, 2013.
I’tmad, 19, Saidon, Lebanon, 2013. (Elena Dorfman)

But Dorfman’s portraits capture the human vulnerability beneath the resilient exteriors of her young Syrian subjects. In 2013, Dorfman spent six months traveling around Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey photographing Syrian refugees for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She received the assignment because she has a unique set of skills.

After starting her career as a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dorfman moved into photojournalism and eventually spent the majority of her career taking portraits for major magazines. She’s photographed in conflict zones abroad, as well as taken portraits of David Lynch and Kirk Douglas. When the U.N. reached out to her, she said, they invited her to shed new light on the effects of the conflict in Syria by telling a different story than the one that shots of war-torn landscapes do — a story focused on characters. Although Dorfman had already settled into a new professional phase in fine art photography, and was about to release a book, she decided to drop what she was doing to see what perspectives she could amplify abroad.

Farman, 17, Kurdistan, Northern Iraq, 2013.
Farman, 17, Kurdistan, Northern Iraq, 2013. (Elena Dorfman)

She returned with Syria’s Lost Generation. The series was originally published in the New Yorker in 2013, and has since exhibited all over the United States. It features refugees between the ages of 14 and 22, some still with their families, others without; some living in apartments and others in makeshift camps or converted old buildings without amenities. But Dorfman’s photos focus more on soul than setting. Many of the young adults in her portraits appear to be languishing in a bereft state of placelessness — old enough to understand what is happening, but too young to be busied with the responsibility of making a new life for their families.


“They were the kids that just looked most left out,” Dorfman says. “They’re already struggling with an incredibly difficult situation, but they’re going through adolescence in these places… they’re trying to grow up in the middle of a war, in a brand-new place, knowing in some cases very few people, and I was very interested in what their hopes were for their futures.”

Dorfman has worked with young adults before, when she took portraits of teens living with cancer for her 1998 book The C-Word. Again, she was struck by how her adolescent subjects’ circumstances inflamed the already agonizing emotions of navigating that awkward stage between childhood and adulthood. “I think most people can relate to young adults because everyone has gone through the horror of being a teenager, but none of us to this degree,” says Dorfman. “They’re living in very life-or-death situations.”

Dvaa, 16, Tripoli, Lebanon, 2013.
Dvaa, 16, Tripoli, Lebanon, 2013. (Elena Dorfman)

In her stunning and heartbreaking portrait, 17-year-old D’vaa looks both dreamy and profoundly disillusioned, with one hand holding up her chin as she sits in a field filled with yellow flowers underneath a gloomy sky.  The rest of her family had initially planned to reunite with D’vaa and her brother in northern Lebanon, she told Dorfman, but as the war got worse it became too dangerous.

In another photograph, 18-year-old Bathoul is seen backed up against a craggy corner, her hands gently holding the jagged rocks behind her. With eyes centered directly on the camera, she appears defiant yet stuck. She told Dorfman that she had once dreamt of becoming an architect, but at the time was living in a windowless cement bunker with no means of making that aspiration a reality.

Bathoul, 16, Tripoli, Lebanon, 2013. (Elena Dorfman)

Most of the young refugees that she met were primarily worried about their educations getting cut short, said Dorfman. But, as far as she knows, only Al Moulia managed to fulfill his dreams of university life. Dorfman was able to introduce him to U.N. officials, who eventually helped him and his family start a new life in Canada — in part, because Al Moulia and his siblings all have a degenerative eye condition. Once there, he received a full-ride scholarship to a university in Toronto. Now, he’s been featured on numerous news platforms spreading awareness about the Syrian refugee crisis and is also a member of Justin Trudeau’s Youth Council.

“I wish that happened to every single kid,” says Dorfman. “Some are luckier than others.”


‘Elena Dorfman: Syria’s Lost Generation’ shows at the Mills College Art Museum (5000 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland) through March 12. Free. More details and info here.

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