The children are very small, very solid, and very out of place. They are framed in swathes of material: rugs and blankets much bigger than they are, pale patterned reams of cloth that would probably be very colourful, if these images weren’t in black and white. One boy peers out through much-darned mosquito mesh; he inhabits a flimsy tent in a makeshift homeland and it’s impossible not to liken his mournful, obscured little face to a prisoner looking out through his bars.
The celebrated war photographer Moises Saman, a member of the legendary Magnum Agency, has photographed Syria’s children in the refugee camps and bare houses where they now sleep. In grim dwellings, patches of peeling paint mock the determinedly cheerful symmetry of those patterned improvised bedclothes. Syria’s refugee children don’t have bedrooms – they don’t have homes. A war they didn’t start has ripped them from everything familiar and landed them under cloth or canvas or rickety roofing in towns or camps that have mushroomed out of distress, like the black mandrakes rumoured to bloom beneath corpses.
“As a photographer I still think there’s a crucial need to examine issues more sensitively and thoroughly, to delve deeper,” says Saman, who has moved to Egypt in order to cover the Arab Spring, or its withering, with greater dedication. He went to Bekaa Valley, Lebanon and Za’atari camp in Jordan at Save the Children’s behest, to photograph the children – over a million of them, now – who have been uprooted from their tormented homeland.
Many of their parents have had to abandon everything they owned; they sleep where there’s space, work if they’re able and rely on aid to feed their offspring, some of whom have seen terrible things: friends or relatives killed, livelihoods smashed, injuries untreated for lack of medicine. Now those children wake in unfamiliar bedding, in a strange country. Their future is murky – who knows what will become of Syria? – and their present scarcely less so; some are missing school to help parents earn enough to feed the family, while others struggle to acclimatise to their new conditions.
Saman has outlined their predicament in precise and glowing monochrome. Two girls smile shyly in front of a strung-up sheet that turns a third child into a lurking shadow. It could be a game – they are in a classroom, after all – but it’s not. This is where they sleep now, and the orderly pattern on the cloth has no reflection in their scrambled lives.
See Magnum photographer Moises Saman’s photographs of Syrian refugee children here