Bringing global issues closer to home

GV alum shares photos, experiences of Syrian Refugee Crisis

By Alyssa Rettelle | 3/25/15 11:26pm

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 Jared Kohler speaking about Syrian refugee’s journey into Lebanon. GVL/Lauren Loria


“I never made it to Syria. Unfortunately, Syria came to me,” said Jared Kohler, a 2012 graduate of Grand Valley State University, about his experience with the study abroad program.

Kohler returned to his alma mater this week to discuss his firsthand experience with the human and political side of the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Jordan.

He had been nominated for the Padnos study abroad scholarship, which would have given him the opportunity to study for a year in Syria if the civil war had not broken out. Instead, he ended up in Jordan, though it wasn't by choice.

“Four years ago was the anniversary of the state of the Syrian civil war, but also the anniversary of me making one of the worst miscalculations of my life," Kohler said. "I was in the running for the Padnos study abroad scholarship, so I went into the interview with the staff members of Grand Valley. I had registered to go to Syria and they were asking why I thought it was still safe to study there – and so I gave them what I thought was a convincing answer, somehow it worked and they believed me.”

A few months after he got the scholarship to go, the situation devolved and it was no longer safe, so he ended up in Jordan doing the same program. Kohler graduated while still in Jordan, but he decided to stay to see what the country had to offer him.

He began working at a study abroad agency helping students plan their trips. He said he felt disappointed that he wasn't working as an international journalist, but that soon changed.

One of the speakers that came to talk with his students was a journalist on contract with the New York Times who was in need of a photographer. Since then, Kohler has had his photos appear in the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Yahoo!, CNN, BBC, The Daily Show, TIME for Kids, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, La Monde, Sydney Morning Herald and numerous other publications. He has also been used by many international agencies.

During his presentation, he spoke about the people he met and the situations he saw while working in Jordan. He first presented a photo of two young disfigured children and explained that they had been injured in the conflict.

“That is when it really started to hit me,” he said. “How close this is happening. Even though we’re living in a safe place, the city this happened in was basically the distance from me as Grand Valley is to Traverse City.”

Additionally, he expressed how surprised he was at the large number of refugees that Jordan is taking in from Syria. He said the first time that really hit him was when he went in a United Nations convoy to the border crossing for a project. It was dark, but when he started taking photos, he could see hundreds of people carrying everything they owned through the desert to get to safety.

Kohler also explained the process the refugees have to go through once they reach the border, what their lives are like living in crowded refugee camps and how adults aren't allowed to get work permits, which puts families in danger.

“If adults are found to be working, they do face danger," Kohler said. "Many of them have no other options, so they send their kids out to beg for money because they know the government will be more lenient on them.

"Kids are really something we all need to think about. They’re the lost generation. They’re becoming streetwise at far too young of an age.”

Despite the struggles the Syrians go through, Kohler emphasized that they aren’t the people who are worst off in Jordan.

“There are Sudan, Somali and Iraqi refugees still living in Jordan, too," he said. "Their conflict isn’t the sexy one that gets the funding or media coverage, and some of them have even worse rights.They don’t get any government assistance of benefits like the Syrians do. They’re coming out of traumatic situations and are getting almost no help.”

Kohler was born in Traverse City, Mich. He attended and taught at a film school in Orlando, Fla., and he has degrees in film and video production and international relations with a focus on Middle Eastern studies. He’s currently living in West Sumatra, Indonesia.  

arettelle@lanthorn.com

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