The children are smiling. Dressed in their karate uniforms, the boys and girls of the Golden Bridge School in the Syrian village of Aljiina near Aleppo play and train like any other young students. These pockets of joy and normalcy in a country ravaged by a decade-old conflict are in stark contrast to images often seen of Syria, ones of refugee camps and ruins.
But both sides exist, and they are captured by the likes of photographer Anas Alkharboutli, whose series on the karate school, entitled Sport and Fun Instead of War and Fear, is a finalist for the Sony World Photography Awards.
Alkharboutli's entry into photography was spurred by the same war that he now documents. He was an engineering student at Damascus University just as the the Arab uprisings of 2011 were spreading to Syria. The siege of Eastern Ghouta, which began in 2013 and resulted in thousands of deaths, as well as an act of chemical warfare by the Syrian Army, caused him to stop his studies and pick up a camera.
“As the situation evolved in my region, I was compelled to carry my camera to document the conflict and siege events, and show what was going on to the outside world,” he says.
That was in 2015. Since then, Alkharboutli has been documenting the toll of the civil war on citizens, from airstrike victims in Idlib to families fleeing their homes as their villages become battlegrounds.
He also finds places such as the Golden Bridge School, where people like Waseem Satot try to rebuild lives amid hardship. Satot and his mother, Nour Al Haffar, were displaced from Aleppo in 2016. Together, the two rebuilt the school in Aljiina three years later, with Al Haffar at the helm and Satot, a physical education teacher, as coach.
Twice a week, Satot teaches karate lessons to children aged between 6 and 15, some of whom have disabilities or learning difficulties. He sees these classes as a way to keep the children’s morale up, despite the trauma that many of them have faced. In Alkharboutli’s photographs, the students – boys and girls, young and pre-teens – are training on ropes and monkey bars, or playing around with their coach.
Visiting the students many times to familiarise himself with his subjects, Alkharboutli sees the school as a “support centre”.
“Most students have no other outlet than to go to the Golden Bridge School," he says. "There are many people with special needs who do not get special care because of the difficult living conditions the war has imposed on them.”
He has photographed similar stories in places such as Al Atareb, where boxer Ahmad Dwara has turned to teaching young boys in his spare time. Once a local boxing champion and international competitor, Dwara’s career was halted by the war. He now works as an ambulance driver.
Alkharboutli hopes that these series of photos, which he usually takes when he is not on the front line photographing for news agencies, show other sides of Syrian life.
“I always focus on children and the life-inspiring projects by residents who bring hope despite their difficult lives,” he says. “All people see is the conflict and the killings in Syria, but there are people here who are struggling and working to keep on living despite the circumstances,” he says.
In his work, Alkharboutli continues to find stories that underscore the destructiveness of war without losing the strength of the human spirit. As the fighting rages on 10 years later, with various foreign interventions inflicting more death and destruction, he, like his subjects, carve out ways to live, work and survive.
“What is happening in Syria needs to be documented continuously for the world to see and know what is going on,” he says.
Anas Alkharboutli’s series Sport and Fun Instead of War and Fear’is a finalist for the Sony World Photography Awards 2021 (sport category). Winners will be announced on April 15