As the world grows more connected – through displaced populations, the internet, and accessible travel – we need to find ways of adapting positively and supportively to these new circumstances. Laura Doggett and her organization, Another Kind of Girl Collective, which promotes the films and photography of Syrian refugee girls living in Jordan, are wonderful examples of this. While speaking to Laura on Skype and email over several months, I was struck by her devotion to helping these young women tell their unique stories to the rest of the world. I also spoke to two girls in the camps, Khaldiya Jibawi and Marah Al Hassan, over Skype with the help of Tasneem Toghoj, the co-facilitator of the collective, who also acted as our translator. I was struck by their bravery and determination to make something out of their circumstances and lives. Through speaking with them, I began to see the importance of storytelling as a way of connecting and forming bonds with others, something that is especially important and relevant in today’s world. I wanted to reflect this in my own work, so I decided to write this piece to show an example of people from different cultures coming together to talk, bond, and work together.
Amplifying Voices with Another Kind of Girl Collective
The film shows a crowd of corrugated metal buildings. Between them, children play. Scrap metal and pieces of wood are scattered on the ground, along with hammers, saws, rope. When the sun sets, the sky turns a deep pink and orange, and the buildings are illuminated, flashing red and burnt sienna. At a distance, there is a young girl, maybe four or five years old, wearing a dress decorated with a fabric daisy. She has on one purple shoe and one black sandal. Next to her, older children are playing around; with linked hands, they have formed a circle. The little girl is upset because she isn’t being included. She throws her hands in the air, but when a boy gestures her to join, she runs away, angry. Next, the film shows a boy is using a long length of rope as a whip to thrash a puddle of muddy water. The camera transitions to another little boy who is hammering a metal stake into the hard ground with a saw next to him. There is no soundtrack or dialogue, just the sound of the children’s voices from afar. The sun hangs low in the sky.
This film, Children, was made by Marah Al Hassan, a young Syrian refugee who lives in Za’atari, the largest refugee camp in Jordan, which is twelve miles over the Syrian border and home to 80,000 people. Marah came to film by way of the Another Kind of Girl Collective (AKOGC), an organization that holds photography and film workshops across Jordan for Syrian refugee girls. The aim of AKOGC and of its founder, Laura Doggett, is to give the girls the needed space, training, and equipment to develop this art form, along with providing a platform for them to share their own stories and experiences. Through their films and photographs, the girls prove themselves to not be passive and tragic beings, which is sometimes how the media portrays them, but hardworking, creative, smart, and motivated visionaries.
According to a 2016 United Nations report, at least 5 million people have had to leave their homes in Syria and settle, at least temporarily, elsewhere in other countries, from Turkey to Sweden. Laura Doggett first started working with Syrian refugees and founded the Another Kind of Girl Collective in Za’atari in 2014. Although thousands of journalists have interviewed refugees in the camp, the stories have often given incomplete or inaccurate portrayals of life in the camps. Laura recognized the need to provide girls in the camps with the necessary equipment and encouragement to document the true stories of their lives, along with a way to connect with others, both in and out of their community. Laura states that her ultimate goal for the collective is to help get the girls started by giving them a direction so they can “use the medium and to learn how to use visual language to be able to express what’s inside of them. A lot of people in general, especially in more traumatic situations, don’t have the words to talk about what’s going on for them. Giving them a visual tool encourages them to learn how to use that tool to say different things about their lives and to reflect on their own stories in a way that they probably hadn’t before.”
Laura credits her father, a master storyteller, with helping her find her love of stories. As she grew up, she also read and drew inspiration from authors like Eudora Welty, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American short story writer and novelist. She recognized the importance of observation and of storytelling and earned her BA in English and Creative Writing. After college, Laura directed a program called the Appalachian Media Institute in Kentucky, teaching young adults how to make documentaries about their communities. She taught photography and creative writing at High Rocks, an organization in West Virginia that promotes girls’ leadership, confidence, and artistic expression. She has also helped teenagers in the inner cities of NYC and DC to share their worlds through making their own documentaries about their lives. Later, she received her MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts from Duke University to better learn how to collaborate with young people and reflect their artistic voices and vision more accurately. These days, Laura spends much of her time in Jordan in Za’atari, holding workshops and providing guidance to the young women there.
When I asked her how she first connected with the girls in the workshops, since they were from such seemingly different worlds, she said, “We must understand they’re like teenage girls from everywhere else, and so we talk about love, friends, or parents. That’s why they want to be recognized and related to as ‘another kind of girl.’” The phrase ‘Another Kind of Girl’ in the collective’s name could be interpreted in several ways. One way to understand it is that the girls are different than others in their communities because they are stepping outside of the usual gender roles. The other way to think about the name is that the girls at the camps want to be recognized as teenage girls, like others their age. They love and enjoy doing the same things as other girls even though they are living in a refugee camp and are growing up in different circumstances. Laura gives the girls an opportunity to take back their stories from the hands of journalists who, as outsiders, are sometimes ill equipped to see the nuances of life in the camps, instead focusing solely on disruption and tragedy.
While some Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) will only lend cameras to children in the refugee camps for weeklong workshops, Laura’s approach is different. She gives the equipment to the children in her classes because if they fall in love with the cameras, she wants them to be able to keep them for continued use as they develop their craft and transform their experiences into art. Laura recalls that on the first day of class, the girls were “terrified and frozen and still…They hadn’t interacted with anyone in a long time. Some were very resistant the whole way through, but by end of week, they were just out there and it was hard to recognize their faces. They already had voices, they’re inside them, but it’s a matter of loosening them up and giving them some tools.” While Laura gives technical instruction on photography and filming techniques, like framing and cropping, she leaves the formal instructions there, opting instead to encourage the girls’ freedom to explore. She does movement exercises with the girls and encourages them to roam freely and to climb on top of objects, like tables or even low buildings, to gain a fresh perspective. She wants the girls to get used to carrying a camera, interacting differently with their environment in public, and expressing themselves freely. Laura said, “A lot of girls say it gives them confidence and courage to be out there in the community… and to see their surroundings in a different way…literally with a new lens. They were able to see the beautiful things around them. And they could also see the things they felt needed to be changed.” After being introduced to the cameras, the girls started to use them all day long: while they made dinner for their families, walked through the camp, and took care of their siblings. They documented everything with determination and drive. When I spoke to Tasneem Toghoj, the co-facilitator of the collective, documentary animator, and educator, she commented on their determination, saying, “They just want to learn things, and I think that’s very interesting because again, in their culture, a lot of the girls leave school at the age of twelve or thirteen and then get married by fourteen or fifteen. So it was just interesting that our girls wanted to learn things, and when we gave them the cameras, they were just excited to use them. It was something new, and I think that was really interesting to see.”
Earlier this year, Laura introduced me to Khaldiya Jibawi and Marah Al Hassan, two girls who live in Za’atari and have participated in Laura’s workshops for several years, and who are now recognized and respected filmmakers. Fortunately, I got a chance to interview them through Skype. Khaldiya and Marah told me that they want to show the world that despite their circumstances, they have many good things in their lives. For instance, they said that in many ways their lives are better now in Za’atari than they would have been had they stayed in Syria, where they would not have had the same opportunities to pursue their education and art. Both girls agree that the collective has changed their paths and goals in a positive light. Khaldiya said, “The Another Kind of Girl Collective changed our lives for the better, and it pushed us and gave us self-esteem because we didn’t have that before. With self-confidence, we have hope in life.”
The girls display resolve and purpose as they produce strong, vibrant, and unique films. Khaldiya takes the encouragement from her mentors and uses it to keep herself dedicated to make more films. Her results push her to want to keep improving. She said, “Whenever I film, whenever I look at what I’ve filmed, every time I look at my shots, I get excited to know that they are really good, which makes me really proud and pushes me to want to do more.” She and Marah, along with other girls in the workshops, aspire to continue their work as filmmakers and directors. They want to use their films to inspire other girls and hope people will look to them as role models; though they are refugees living in the desert of a country that isn’t their own, have married young, and already have children, they are still very passionate and determined to fulfill their artistic dreams. In our interview, Khaldiya and Marah said that they would like to tell other girls in hard circumstances to not let the environment that they’re in or the things that have happened to them have a lasting negative impact on their lives. Instead, they encouraged them to be positive and make the best of the situation they’re in. In an article in The New York Times from January 2016, Khaldiya writes, “We are creative. We strive to rise above our limitations and work toward our dreams. I feel it’s my responsibility not just to tell the world the truth, but to let people see it for themselves.”
While the girls work on their films, Laura is tireless in her efforts to promote their work. Respected news outlets such as The New York Times have interviewed Khaldiya and Marah, along with other girls from Laura’s workshops, and the girls’ films have been celebrated in festivals from Sundance to Cannes. Laura beamed and said, “Their films took off in a way I just wasn’t anticipating, which was great. I feel like people really value what we have to say, and we’re getting a different kind of story out there. The girls feel like they have a valuable contribution to give society. The main thing they seek is meaning and purpose to their everyday lives. That people are seeing refugee girls in a new way has been really motivating and really huge for them.” Currently, Laura is working to get more girls involved around the world by expanding the collective’s efforts. She proudly stated, “In all of the places I’ve worked, I really always was with the most incredible girls and young women you could possibly imagine. I thought it would be amazing if they could all meet each other and collaborate together to make a project.” With her help, Khaldiya and Marah began working with a pair of young mothers from Peru, Karoli and Christy, to make a new documentary about their lives as young mothers. The four girls formed bonds and supported each other through their collaboration, “Y Madre a la Vez.” Laura hopes that this is only the start of the collective’s efforts to connect young women from different cultures. Tasneem agrees, “The whole idea of the collective is to get more girls involved and let it be more worldwide, so it’s not just in Syria.”
Laura Doggett is both a mentor and a guide to girls all over the world–from West Virginia and Washington D.C. to Syria and Peru–encouraging them to step beyond gender norms and expectations, and showing them that their perspectives are respected, appreciated, and heard. Although much of her current work takes place in the Middle East, her devotion and determination inspires many people from communities around the world. If we look at her and the girls’ work, it shows us storytelling as a way of connecting to others. And this, in today’s world, seems more timely and more important than ever.
“Home.” Another Kind of Girl Collective, anotherkindofgirl.com/another-kind-of-girl#/id/i10880124.
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“Another Kind of Girl Collective: Syrian Girls Narrate Their Worlds-Screening and Talk with Filmmaker Laura Doggett.” Sarah Lawrence College, www.sarahlawrence.edu/news-events/events/detail/2813.
“Another Kind of Girl Collective: Art in the Hands of Syrian Refugees.” Another Kind of Girl Collective: Art in the Hands of Syrian Refugees | The School of Medicine & Health Sciences, smhs.gwu.edu/news/another-kind-girl-collective-art-hands-syrian-refugees.
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