01/22/2014 05:14 EST | Updated 03/24/2014 05:59 EDT

The Syrians Who Won't Be at This Week's Peace Talks

As long-awaited Syria peace talks begin this week, World Vision's Tanya Penny will be watching closely. She has been living alongside Syrian refugees in Jordan for the past two months, telling their stories with words and photographs. Here, Tanya describes the heartbreak that even the camera can't capture.

"My children are sick because I can't afford heating or food."

I took a sharp intake of breath when I finally realized what he had said. I lowered my camera, ashamed to admit that my mind had been on the lighting of the room, the framing of the image, and not at all on the words that this father had spoken. The faces of his four children seemed more fragile, now I was no longer looking at them through a lens.

This is the first time I have lived alongside people in an emergency situation for three months straight. I've taken nearly 3,000 photos since I arrived, interviewed multiple families and just accepted that my heart will be forever broken by these situations. This day, however, was different.


Children wait as their parents line up at an aid distribution. With no schooling options and few safe places to play, there's not much else to do.

It was New Year's Day and I was visiting Jaresh, one of the poorest cities in Jordan. More and more Syrian families are settling in this already struggling community, causing pressure on the school systems, labour market and infrastructure.

I had started this visit with a feeling of pressure. Pressure to deliver exactly what was expected from colleagues around the world who also have an incredibly challenging and vital role to play in raising awareness and funds for this crisis. A crisis that has been going for too long with too little interest from the rest of the world.

There is always a tension to get the right image that will make people in other countries care, an image that will really express the reality and harshness of the circumstances these refugees are facing. It is not always easy.


Nine-year-old Ammarni clings to her donated winter jacket, her only protection against the bitter cold.

Often, the true desperation of a situation like the Syrian crisis is not shown in what survivors are wearing, or even how they are living. It is shown and felt in the way they look at you and talk to you. The fear that stays with someone who has had to flee for their lives is gut-wrenching. Their suspicion, their caution, the slow deliberate movements that they make, and their sudden bursts of anger and frustration -- these all have a way of making me feel helpless and guilty that I can't make it all go away.

This guilt leads to doubt in my ability to capture the image or quote that will make the world care enough to do something. Late last year, I enrolled in an advanced photography course and had a few one-on-one lessons with some close photography friends. All of this in the hope that, when I was deployed, my abilities would do justice to the people I meet.


A barefoot child endures the numbing cold of a concrete floor.

But it is hard to show just how cold a concrete floor is on the naked feet of a child, how wet the inside of a room is from the leaking roof, or how bone-shivering the air in a house with no sealed window is as it snows outside. It is even harder to look through the back of a camera at a child's face as it crumples into tears. I'm not sure I will ever be able to take the image or tell the story that will move the rest of the world to care about another country's children. And I know I will end each day like this: crying.

But if just one person, somewhere, is moved to action -- be it a share on Facebook, saying a prayer, making a donation or advocating to their government to do more -- and if just one child that I meet here can go to bed at night knowing they are not forgotten, then the long hours, the fatigue and the heartbreak will have been more than worth it.

How can you help?

Visit a special website set up by World Vision, UNICEF, UNHCR, Save the Children, and other agencies working in Syria and its neighboring countries.

• Here, you can help champion the children of Syria, as part of the Stand With Me campaign.

• You can mobilize your personal networks by using the hashtag #ChildrenofSyria


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Syria War in January
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