01/30/2013 03:03 EST | Updated 01/31/2013 10:49 EST

Once I Was Here: Toronto Journalist, Photographers Hold Benefit For Syrian Refugees

Tara Sutton, an award-winning filmmaker and journalist, has been a firsthand witness to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, disasters in Ethiopia and watching activists and citizens fight for their lives and rights in Afghanistan, Cambodia and many other countries.

Recently, while living in Jordan, she covered the refugee crisis brought on by the Syrian civil war. Now back in Toronto, Sutton looked for a way to help the thousands of Syrians displaced by their government's brutal crackdown. She organized Once I Was Here, an auction of photos taken by dozens of veteran photojournalists. The funds raised will go towards the Collateral Repair Project and The Church of Mafraq, two NGOs that Sutton got to know in Jordan, both of which are directly helping Syrian refugees. The Huffington Post Canada e-mailed Sutton about the project.

You've reported from various conflicts and disasters. What makes Syria different?

All conflicts are horrible for the people they affect, so I don’t think Syria is different in that regard. What made it different for me is that it happened on my doorstep. I was living in Jordan for the last two years. From about this time last year, I started noticing cars with Syrian plates. It was like déjà vu to ten years ago when the same thing happened with Iraqis. [Ed. Note: Sutton covered the Iraq war and witnessed the humanitarian crisis that conflict created.]

My first reporting trip up to Mafraq, a town in Jordan on the border with Syria, was with a humanitarian group that was bringing up used clothes, shoes and toys for the refugees. I was stunned when I saw the numbers of people and how they had absolutely nothing. I had visited Syria a few times, actually as R and R from covering Iraq, and it is such a beautiful country and the people are so urbane in the cities. In Mafraq they were digging through piles of clothes. It shocked me. One image stays in my mind of a mother holding up a little shirt, eyeballing it to see if it would fit her child, and then putting it back. The gesture struck me, as it is something all mothers do, whether you are in a mall shopping or I guess digging through donated goods. I also saw in the people’s faces the same signs of stress I know from war. The unshaved men with grey skin from lack of sleep. The microscopic facial twitches around the eyes that people get after they have been truly terrified.

I continued going back and forth to Mafraq to gather stories of the refugees there — it was a good way to find out what was going on in Syria without actually going there. Every night more people would arrive from Syria. One thing that was different, than for example in Iraq where people drove across the border to Jordan, was that everyone coming from Syria came on foot because they had to sneak out. They were literally being hunted within their own country if they came from a rebel town. The army had lists of names of the families of fighters and if they found them they would be shot. In fact, not long ago a six-year-old boy was shot trying to leave through “the fence,” as the Syrians call sneaking over the unofficial crossing points to Jordan.


Once I Was Here Photo Auction

It's been tough for western journalists to get information out of Syria. Is this part of the reason why the conflict hasn't received as much attention in the West?

I think that may be a part of it, but there still are a lot of brave journalists who have been making the trip there to report. I think it hasn’t received attention for two main reasons. One, there are no Western countries involved, so unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, there is no direct domestic interest. I think the second reason has to do with the way the 24-hour news cycle works these days. Stories need to be shocking and immediate to grab headlines. For example, the siege and shelling of Homs made it into the news, it was contained and easy to explain to people. It was so violent it was shocking. Then as the war continued and more and more towns received similar treatment, the story lost its headline appeal. A long grinding war is hard to cover in a unique way when it doesn’t have a direct link to the audience. I think there is coverage out there if you are interested and look for it. Certainly there is more coverage of Syria in the European press.

Tell me more about the kind of work that the Collateral Repair Project does?

CRP was founded by a really incredible 60-year-old American, Sasha Crow, who felt that she wanted to help heal some of the damage that the war in Iraq had done to civilians. She and co-director Mary Madsen raised funds, and then Sasha left her sunny home in California and moved to Amman where she opened a small centre for refugees. Since the start of the conflict in Syria they are also offering their services to Syrian refugees. They do all kinds of things. They offer education classes in everything from English to self defence (for the kids who often get bullied in school for being foreigners) to computer literacy. They also have funds set aside for emergency assistance, so when a family has no food or money they give them a voucher for the supermarket. They help newly arrived refugees set up house, providing heaters, mattresses, blankets and household goods.

The thing I love about this organization is that it is right in the heart of the community. Most poor Iraq refuges live in a bustling crowded part of Amman known as Hashemi Al Shmali. It is most definitely NOT where most expat aid-workers live, but Sasha lives there. If you walk down the street with her everybody really does know her name. She works with a great Iraqi guy called Ghazwan who has a heart of gold. Because they live with the population they are helping, they really know and understand their needs and can react to them quickly. They are the opposite of a bureaucratic big NGO who needs to write seven papers and submit endless assessments before anything can change. Aside from Sasha and Ghazwan’s care for the refugees, the centre is also a place for people who have lost everything to reestablish a community with people from their homeland who have gone through similar experiences. I think one of the worst things about being a refugee, aside from poverty, is the sense of isolation and being an outsider. I think CRP combats that effectively.

Also, tell me about the Church of Mafraq? What kind of work do they do?

The work there is spearheaded by a very cool Jordanian priest, Pator Nour Issa, I am not a religious person, but I have to say this guy really walks the walk.

He never intended to help refugees — he was in Mafraq, ministering to the poor there. Mafraq is already a poor town. However, last year all these Syrians began arriving in his town and he began doing what he could to help them. He impressed me because again he is right there in the community of people that he is helping. Often when he would go and visit the refugees he would have his 11-year-old son with him. He has a lovely way with people and seems to have a photographic memory to remember “this family needs a stove, this widow needs a fan, they need mattresses.” The thing that also struck me about him was that while the big international organizations were ringing their hands and shaking their hats for money, but not actually doing anything on the ground that I saw, Pastor Nour was just getting on with it.

Do you have a favourite photo or photos from the ones up for auction?

If I could I would keep them all. I will be bidding, I think, on Andrea Bruce’s election photo — it makes me happy. And Kael Alford’s Tracey’s Tree, because I love the colors in it! But I really don’t have a favourite, how could I when they are all so amazing? Many of these photographers are known for shooting news, and so I think it is great to look at their photos and really highlight the artistry they possess as photographers. Putting this together has meant coordinating with a group who have been in Syria, Haiti, Mali, Iran, Iraq, Oman, the Balkans, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Mexico over the last few months. They have all been so generous with their work.

The silent auction for Once I Was Here will be held in Toronto at the 345 Gallery on January 31, 7:30 pm-9:30pm. There will also be an online auction for the photos on Jan. 31 from 9:00 am to 9:30pm ET.

Other groups helping Syria's refugees.