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Memories of Syria's 'forgotten city' come alive in Berlin exhibition

Hayyan al-Yousouf’s photos reveal the impact the Syrian war has had on Deir Ezzor, one of the largest and most important cities in eastern Syria
Syrian photographer Hayyan al-Yousouf wanted to show signs of hope and beauty, such as a butterfly with a damaged wing, amid the Syrian war (Courtesy of Hayyan al-Yousouf)

Hayyan al-Yousouf’s photographs, which have just been on display at Humboldt, one of Berlin’s leading universities, offer fresh insight into what daily life was like for people living in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor since the Syrian uprising in 2011. 

From the lone man standing in what was once one of the busiest streets in the city, to a man kneeling down in despair in front of his destroyed business, to images of nature blossoming through the rubble, Yousouf tried to depict a complete picture of what was happening in his hometown, until Yousouf’s journey to Germany in 2014.

His photos, which featured in the Forgotten City photo exhibition that took place from 30 January until 13 February, reveal the impact the Syrian war has had on one of the country's most important cities, the centre of Syria’s oil production.

A man looks at his destroyed home. Hayyan al-Yousouf wanted to show how life continued for Deir Ezzor's citizens amid the war (Courtesy of Hayyan al-Yousouf)
In a cafe in Berlin’s trendy southeast Kreuzberg district, Yousouf shares his experiences of life on the frontlines, living as a refugee in Germany, and his hope for the future.

“There are three circles around each other - one small, a medium and then a larger one. These are the circles of neglect that I wanted to show [in the exhibition]. The first circle of neglect is me and my friends - the forgotten people. Then it was my city and country - forgotten places; then it’s the Middle East, a neglected region,” he says.

'A beautiful place'

The 38-year-old recalls a happy childhood in Deir Ezzor on the west banks of the Euphrates River.

 A couple of months in and one of my close friends was killed by the regime. That’s when I lost my control

- Hayyan al-Yousouf, photographer

“It is a very beautiful place and as children we spent a lot of time outside. I think it’s maybe why I connected with photography, because of the beauty of nature,” Yousouf recalls. 

Encouraged by his father, an art teacher, at the age of 13 Yousouf started learning the craft of photography at a professional studio after school.

“When I would go back home, my father would ask me what I did that day and what I learnt. Then he would explain some of the more theoretical parts of photography, like the relationship between colours, how to arrange a shot, how to adjust the lighting,” he says. “After some time, I discovered how much I liked it and started to develop my knowledge of photography further.”

Yousouf was also interested in growing plants and agriculture and, due to the lack of education opportunities in photography, he decided to pursue a higher education in agricultural engineering. After he graduated from Aleppo University in 2004, he secured a job as an engineer in a science research centre in Deir Ezzor. He continued to practise photography as a hobby.

In March 2011, protests erupted in Daraa in Syria against Bashar al-Assad’s oppressive rule. Soon the demonstrations spread across the nation and violent clashes broke out.

Yousouf used his photography skills to document weekly protests around his hometown. Within a few months, he and a group of friends set up the volunteer-led Der Ezzor coordination, to follow important events and human rights violations during the uprising. The non-profit faced many challenges.

Three children sit on a couch in the kitchen of their home five minutes after a rocket hit and destroyed their house. The kitchen was the only room left undamaged (Courtesy of Hayyan al-Yousouf)
“Losing friends and members of our organisation was one of the hardest challenges. We would start working together at the beginning of the day and then when we had finished, we would find out about friends who had been caught or killed by the regime," he says. "But as an organisation, we took a decision that whatever happens, we would keep going.

“We did our best to show that this was a peaceful demonstration [and] that we were normal people - doctors, engineers, shopkeepers - and all we wanted was our dignity,” he adds.

First you need to face the fear

- Hayyan al-Yousouf, photographer

As war became a reality for Deir Ezzor’s 93,000 civilians, Yousouf and his colleagues were on the frontlines, using fake accounts on Facebook to get stories out to the world. 

But as the war descended into a spiral of violence and scores were killed, the positive outlook Yousouf once had began to get chipped away.

“We thought at the beginning that the world would support us,” he recalls.

“We thought the West respected human rights, freedom, dignity, but then we found that wasn’t the case. A couple of months in and one of my close friends was killed by the regime. That’s when I lost my control. It was the same for many people around me, people started to lose control when they started to lose loved ones.”

A dust storm covers the Hope Hotel next to Freedom Square, where demonstrations against the government of Bashar al-Assad took place every Friday (Courtesy of Hayyan al-Yousouf)
Documenting the ongoing situation meant that Yousouf was not only on the front line, but he was also at risk of being arrested by forces loyal to Assad, which is exactly what happened after around two months.

“I was taking pictures and videos at one of the protests when the army caught me and my colleagues. They kept us two floors underground for three months. It was a terrible experience,” he says without elaborating. He pauses for a while before continuing, “but after I was freed, I kept working. We survived three months in there and it gave us the motivation to keep working and not to fail.”

We thought at the beginning that the world would support us

- Hayyan al-Yousouf, photographer

It was a turbulent time for Yousouf.

“First you need to face the fear,” he says.

After three years, it became clear to Yousouf that things would not end in favour of the anti-government protesters. With a peaceful revolution in the throes of a civil war, the time came when Yousouf realised there was no hope on the horizon.

Forced to flee

In October 2014, after the Islamic State (IS) group placed the city under siege, he and some friends felt they had no choice but to flee Syria and go to Turkey, where they hoped to find jobs. At the time, Turkey implemented an "open border" policy for Syrian refugees, enabling them to reach Turkey through a legal border gate.

Missiles are fired on a neighbourhood in Deir Ezzor (Courtesy of Hayyan al-Yousouf)
Within a week of arriving in Turkey, a couple of his friends said they wanted to try to get to Berlin and Yousouf decided to go with them. 

“I wasn’t sure about anything, except that I didn’t want to lose any more friends. I wanted us to stay together,” he says.

We thought the West respected human rights, freedom, dignity, but then we found that wasn’t the case

- Hayyan al-Yousouf, photographer

They set off from the Turkish coastal city of Izmir and it took him and his three friends 40 days to reach Dortmund in Germany. They went via Greece and the Balkan route, the main passage for migrants trying to reach northern Europe, that was relatively easy to cross at the time.

“It was difficult because you do it subconsciously. You know there is no way to go back. You have nothing left behind you, so you have to keep going further.” 

Despite filing a request with the German authorities to keep the four friends together, they were split up across the country. Yousouf ended up in a refugee hostel in Horst, a small village in the north of Germany. With no friends and only a mobile phone to keep him company, depression soon set in.

“I was living in a small room in a refugee hostel where all I could do was read the news about my country and my hometown. I was depressed because we used to be making the events, but now I was nothing but neglected in a small village, with nobody to talk to,” he said. 

In December 2014, things started to change while visiting a friend in the German capital. Yousouf took a liking to the vibrant city and decided he had to find a way to move there.

Shortly after his visit, he received a message from a journalist who had interviewed him for an article in Die Tageszeitung, a newspaper based in Berlin.

A free internship position was available at the publication, known as Taz, and he was invited to apply for it. That's when he met Swedish photographer Ann Christine Jannson, who works at Taz and whom he describes as his "best friend". Soon the idea for an exhibition was born.

This country protected us and gave us a chance to start a new life

- Hayyan al-Yousouf, photographer

“After I finished the internship, I kept visiting Taz, and my first opportunity for an exhibition came up in 2015. It was in one of the city’s oldest and most prominent churches called Französischer Dom. They had organised a week for refugees and funded the printing of the photos,” he says.

Through this endeavour, a second opportunity came up at a gallery in Kreuzberg, followed by a third at Deutsche Kinemathek, a well-known museum of film and television.

Hayyan al-Yousouf speaks to people during his exhibition at Humboldt University (MEE/Ann Christine Jansson)
His latest exhibition was his fourth so far. Alongside his photography projects, he has been pursuing other avenues. He was recently given a part-time job at an agricultural engineering company in Müncheberg in eastern Germany.

I don’t want to forget my past. I want to keep pushing myself forward

- Hayyan al-Yousouf, photographer

“I will feel like a member of society once I start working properly,” he says.

“This country protected us and gave us a chance to start a new life. Like others, I just needed the time to learn the language and get into the system. I have a German family who have adopted me as one of their own, as well as giving me a room to stay in their home. My life was very cold before, but it has turned warm.”

Yousouf is now looking toward the future, with plans to take his exhibition beyond Berlin and pursue a PhD in agriculture.

“I don’t want to forget my past. I want to keep pushing myself forward, but keeping my connection to the past and the memory, because this is me.”

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