04 Dec 2015
The little girl is crying.
Dark, crinkled eyebrows throw a shadow over sepia cheekbones. Adult hands rest on her shoulders, an apparent attempt to calm the child.
She is one of millions of refugees from Syria, and one subject photographed in May by Dean Rice, Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett’s chief of staff.
His photos are from the Jordan-based Zaatari refugee camp for Syrians. They will be exhibited starting Friday at the downtown Knoxville Emporium Center.
“The message isn’t complicated,” Rice said of the exhibit.
“Do what needs to be done to stop the war so these kids can go home.”
A popular uprising that began four years ago against the Syrian government and President Bashar al-Assad has since morphed into a violent civil war in a country where the Islamic State now controls some cities. International powers over time have come into play while Islamic State fighters targeted cities beyond Syrian borders, including a series of Nov. 13 attacks in Paris that killed 130.
The backlash after the Paris attack brought political heat in the United States over whether the country should accept Syrian refugees and, if so, how they should be screened.
Rice just wants to see the children safely return to their homes and have the war stopped.
“Address the root of the problem, and that’s a civil war.
Give the country back to the proud people who have lived there for thousands of years,” he said. “Is it perfect? No. Is it a solution to the refugee crisis? Yes.”
The photographs Rice will show should give people here a chance to see the faces of people displaced by the war, he and others said.
The opening is on a First Friday for Knoxville, a time when people visit downtown to tour art galleries. And the city’s Christmas parade is scheduled Friday night, which is expected to bring even more people downtown.
Visitors should drop by the 100 block of Gay Street to see the exhibit, said Liza Zenni, director of the Arts & Culture Alliance at the Emporium.
The exhibit shows real children in their environment from a war-torn country, according to Zenni, who added that the photographs may help some people here overcome stereotypes about Syrian refugees.
“The hope is (people will) look upon these faces and will be touched,” Zenni said. “Their hearts will be softened and everyone will realize that every person is an individual.
Every child on this Earth deserves safety, peace, clothing shelter, food and an education. These children haven’t done anything wrong.”
Erin Darby, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee, knows firsthand how seeing the faces of refugees can change someone. She takes UT students to Jordan every two years for excavation projects, and on her most recent trip they encountered refugees.
They were starving, she said. Her students offered them pita bread, but it shortly led to fighting among the hungry refugees. Most of them were women and children, Darby said.
Her students later asked what would happen to the refugees. She lobbed a question in return.
“Do you want the answer you want to hear, or the real answer?” she asked. “The real answer is they’re going to die.”
She said the encounter was life-changing for many of her students.
Rice wants to help avoid outcomes of death and disease for the refugees. He plans to donate proceeds from the sales of prints equally to three charities. They include: the Syrian American Medical Society, which sends physicians to Syria, Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon to give direct medical care; the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which supports the overthrow of the Assad regime; and Mission of Hope, a Knoxville nonprofit that delivers assistance to poor people, and children, especially, in rural Appalachia.
Syrian children and poor children from rural Appalachia aren’t that different, according to Rice.
“My point is kids are kids,” he said. “God’s kids are God’s kids.”