Hani Al Moulia knows what it's like to live in a cozy house, to sleep in a warm bed, and to consider life in a refugee camp a far-off, unthinkable reality.
"In Syria, I grew up in an upper-middle-class family I would say," the photographer, who now lives in Canada tells the Straight over the phone from Regina, where his parents finally were able to settle. But everything changed when the civil war broke out around his hometown of Homs—a city now decimated by fighting. Al Moulia was nearing the age of 18, and compulsory military service. And then, he says, he got arrested for smuggling food back to his neighbourhood with his cousin.
"It was too risky to be there. That was the turning point. I left with my uncle to a refugee camp where some of my relatives were in Lebanon," he recounts matter-of-factly.
"I really considered it as a new experience. I never considered I would be in a refugee camp someday. We thought we would be there maybe six months and we would be back. But that was not the truth. It took three years. When my family followed me as well, we realized that 'We are refugees now.'"
But after taking an Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees–sponsored workshop on photojournalism, Al Moulia decided to take a more active role in these new surroundings. Unlike the thousands of images outside journalists were sending from the camps, his would depict life in the camp from the inside, through his own lens. The resulting photographs—capturing everything from children laughing as they warm their hands over a makeshift outdoor stove to a man getting his hair cut on a chair outside a shelter—are on view now at the West Vancouver Museum as part of the exhibit Home/Shelter/Belonging. They're also on display in a wholly fitting venue at the Harmony Arts Festival: Better Shelter's award-winning modular emergency tent (in partnership with the UNHCR and IKEA foundation)—the kind that houses refugees around the world.
"I said 'I will take pictures to show the world what it's like to be living in a refugee camp.'" Al Moulia, who now studies computer engineering at Ryerson University in Toronto, while continuing to hone his photographic art. "There's a responsibility to that—not just something I do for fun or to fill my time but something valuable for the future."
What makes Al Moulia's images even more remarkable is that he is legally blind, living with a condition that makes it impossible to focus on anything that isn't close to his face. But just as he had to learn to adapt to growing up in Syria, where he says there was little to accommodate the visually impaired, he adjusted to photography, first by using automatic cameras, then memorizing manual settings so he could fine-tune his own shots.
The results, as visitors to the Harmony fest will see this week, are images that show the hardships of camp life, yet they also contain enough and hope to contrast the pictures of misery that make their way into news stories about the camps.
"When people are really smiling or when people are really helping each other—these are the things that are missing from people's ideas about refugee camps: that people really become closer," Al Moulia says emphatically. "There we are all equal, we have the same resources and we think of surviving in a way that is really similar. Only when you ask people 'What do you do for a living?' you see how different they are."
Amid the images on display, look for one that depicts a little boy standing atop a rusting oil drum, his shadow thrown onto the white canvas of a refugee tent. "That's my brother Ashraf and I wanted to show that he is not the kid that he should be at the camp," Al Moulia explains, "but I also wanted to say that every kid in the camp is the same in that way. You don't need to see their face; they all have the same unfair childhood I would say. But what's important for me was Ashraf is living here now. He has friends. He eats well. And he sleeps well."
He adds: "I'm sharing how home is different from one place to another but it is still home."
That idea plays directly into Home/Shelter/Belonging, put together by the West Vancouver Museum's Darrin Morrison and guest curator Robin Laurence (a long-time contributor to the Straight). Putting Al Moulia's work alongside that of Sylvia Borda, Jim Breukelman, Germaine Koh, Annie Pootoogook, Itee Pootoogook, and Gu Xiong, the show encompasses themes of settlement and immigration, as well as diverse structural concepts of "home".
"The project was to look at culturally diverse artists and their experiences but also how it impacted First Nations communities," Morrison tells the Straight over the phone. "The idea was to look critically at the idea of settlement...people looking to find identity but really seeking comfort in the home."
Perspectives range from the Pootoogooks' images of life in the Arctic, where many Inuit were consigned to government-assigned prefab homes around Cape Dorset, to Gu's charcoal-on-canvas depictions of immigrating to Canada, one capturing the view from a small basement-suite window into a garden.
And then there are Al Moulia's works, which Morrison calls "remarkable" and "full of human spirit and vitality". Morrison spent the past three months trying to get the Better Shelter here for its first visit to Canada. "It's a project that can actually use design to better humanity," he says.
But there's another, bigger reason for using the shelter to house Al Moulia's affecting and poetic photographs. As Al Moulia once was, we are far removed from the refugee-camp experience here in Canada. "We're isolated from it and we only see it on TV; we don't experience it directly," Morrison says. "This is a great way of bringing reality to the experience for the 130,000 or so people that attend the festival."
Home/Shelter/Belonging shows at the West Vancouver Museum to September 9. The off-site exhibit of Hani Al Moulia's photos at the Better Shelter runs at the Harmony Arts Festival on the West Vancouver waterfront to August 13.