In 2009, Maya Angelou published a book of essays called Letter to My Daughter. She never had a daughter though. What she did have — and hence the title of the book — was a strong sense of extended family, of feeling a personal connection with all around her. I relate to that.
Not having daughters myself, I sometimes meet girls who give me a sense of what it might be like to be a father. Or maybe I can just say who deepen my sense of what it means to be human: the ability of the heart to melt, of one’s impulse for self-preservation to be utterly eclipsed by the red-hot desire for another’s safety and wellbeing.
In my work as a photographer who travels widely, it’s not uncommon for someone to say, “You must meet and fall in love with girls all over the world.” If I may alter the intent of the question a bit, the answer, I confess, is yes. Here are some of the girls I fell in love with in 2017:
While photographing a service at Mart Shmoni, a Syriac church in the Iraqi city of Erbil, three-year-old Belin snagged my attention, bringing me to my knees for a minute or two in the aisle. The parishioners at this church are originally from Qaraqosh, which, before being overrun by ISIS in 2014, was the largest Christian town in Iraq. It was impossible to look at her and not think of the terror of this congregation as they fled the lightning advance of ISIS, many with small children in their arms. It was in this aisle with Belin that I had my first experience in Iraq of feeling something deep down inside myself rise up and say, “Oh, hell no.” I had the camera to my face and was taking pictures, but I was also experiencing a degree of clarity and conviction: if you are part of a group or worldview threatening people like Belin, there’s no place I’d rather be than in your way.
Some days later, in looking at this picture it was also impossible for me not to recall Chris Hondros’ iconic image of five-year-old Samar Hassan, who also wore a dress, and the red splatter of blood after her parents, Hussein and Kamila, were killed by an American patrol in 2005. I will never forget that picture of Samar Hassan.
In all the institutions I try to be present and accountable for all I do and leave undone. I know that eventually I shall have to be present and accountable in the presence of God. I do not wish to be found wanting. — Maya Angelou
During a 72-hour visit to Mosul, riding around with a local Iraqi who took me to photograph in various parts of the eastern side of the city, I was not always entirely comfortable. The discomfort had to do with the sounds of gunfire, airstrikes, and car bombs coming from the western side of Mosul — audible reminders that tremendous suffering and insecurity was nearby — and the need to generally not linger too long in one spot even on the eastern side.
One of our stops was the heavily pillaged Noah’s Ark church (more commonly called the Titanic church by locals). Here, in the cavernous sanctuary, I met 10-year-old Rafah. Originally from the town of Rabia, close to the Syrian border, she, along with her family, had fled there and had been living in this empty church for the past month. In a world on fire, she radiated strength, dignity, and light, and in seeing her I thought: there is no other place I’d rather be right now than here.
In the flush of love’s light, we dare be brave. And suddenly we see that love costs all we are, and will ever be. Yet it is only love which sets us free. — Maya Angelou
If one day I tattoo someone’s name on my arm — unlikely, but who knows? — it’ll be that of seven-year-old Sonia, whom I met at Sharya IDP camp near Dohuk. There is some confusion as to her name. In my notes I wrote that her older sister, seen on the far right of this picture, is named Falak, but there is a possibility that it is the other way around. One day I will get this verified, but for now we go with “Sonia”.
Sonia is Yazidi, and along with the thousands of others in this camp had fled ISIS in 2014. During lunch in a family’s tent, she took note of the sweat on my face and, wanting to keep me cool and keep the flies at bay, waved a towel for at least 15 minutes as I ate. Sonia probably thought she was just keeping me cool and fly-free. But she was also driving home the depth of my anger toward ISIS, because they had destroyed so much that was good and beautiful.
You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud. — Maya Angelou
You can feel love when you see happiness, or grace, or thoughtfulness. You can feel it too when you see hurt.
Newly arrived in a refugee camp, Sakera, age 11 and a member of Burma’s Rohingya minority, was without her father, who had been shot and killed by the Burmese several weeks earlier. Tears slid down her cheeks as a neighbor recounted his death. In the short time I was with her and her neighbors, I felt markedly ineffectual. I wanted to hug Sakera, but that would have been culturally awkward. I wanted to punch somebody, but there was no one to punch. And so I simply said “I’m so sorry,” and for a moment allowed my tears to join with theirs.
Weeks later, back home in the States and listening to music while on a bike ride, White Lion’s song “When the Children Cry” played. And I wondered, “How is Sakera doing?”
Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible. — Maya Angelou
Late one afternoon, hours into my wandering around Colombo, I was drained physically and emotionally, and I think I looked like it as I took a break in a popular park by the sea. And I think 130 fourth and fifth grade girls and their teachers thought I looked like it too. They were from the Sri Lankan city of Kandy, wrapping up a day-long field trip here in the country’s capital. The teachers were handing out ice cream to each student, and near the end of this process one of the girls walked over and gave me an ice cream too. My loneliness was enveloped by the giggles and kindness of 130 girls and their approving and equally warm teachers. It wasn’t one particular person but rather all of them acting as one, like some elite Navy SEAL team on a mission of fun and kindness and handing out ice cream to distressed travelers, that made me feel love.
The human heart is so delicate and sensitive that it always needs some tangible encouragement to prevent it from faltering in its labor. The human heart is so robust, so tough, that once encouraged it beats its rhythm with a loud unswerving insistency. — Maya Angelou
THINGS MENTIONED OR RELATED:
- Letter to My Daughter, by Maya Angelou
- Chris Hondros’ iconic photo of Samar Hassan in Tel Afar, Iraq
- Aerial view of the Titanic Church in Mosul
- “Who are the Yazidis and Why is ISIS Hunting Them?” (The Guardian, 11 August 2014)
- iPhone video clip of Sonia and others at lunch
- My blog post “What Child Is This? (Rohingya Refugee Crisis)”
- White Lion’s “When the Children Cry” music video