Through the lens: capturing the beauty and adversity of Sulaymaniyah

Posted December 10, 2019

“I want to express both beauty and sorrow through my photos,” says Hemn Omer Ahmed, a local photographer from the north-eastern Kurdish town of Arbat, Sulaymaniyah. “I started taking photos to capture the beauty of Kurdistan's nature, but also to document the adversity of the people living in this region,” he adds.

Located in the foothills of Suren mountain, and just a stone’s throw away from Ahmad Awa, one of Kurdistan’s most famous waterfalls, it’s no wonder that local photographer’s Hemn Omer Ahmed and Rebeen Rahman Rahim want to capture life in Arbat, through the lens.

Recognizing the power of art to spark conversation and connect community members, UNDP and Un Pont Per (UPP) awarded these photographers a small grant to present a photography exhibition at Arbat Community Center in September. Visited by local community leaders as well as the women, men and youth that frequent the center for training and support services – visitors were inspired to think about their own connection to the land and the community in which they live.

An elderly man stands in front of the grand mosque in Sulaymaniyah selling towels. Photo: Hemn Omer Ahmed/2005

Mayawa village/ Sharbazher – icicles for on the roof of a stone and mud house. Photo: Hemn Omer Ahmed/2015

Mawlawi Street/ Sulaymaniyah – A shoe shiner rests in the street. Photo: Hemn Omer Ahmed/2006

Mayawa/ Sharbazher – A family transports wheat with a donkey. Photo: Hemn Omer Ahmed/2004

In May 2017, UNDP and UPP opened the doors to Arbat Community Center. Home to almost 53,000 Arab, Kurdish, Yazidi and Turkmen, Arbat is located just 20km south-east of the provincial capital – often renowned as an artistic hub for the region. This proximity to the city of Sulaymaniyah, and the relative lower cost of living, makes Arbat a viable home for the IDPs and refugees residing in neighboring camps – Ashti and Arbat IDP camps and Barika refugee camp. The camps contribute almost 20,000 more faces to the local social fabric – including IDPs rushed from their homes in south and central Iraq during the ISIL crisis, and refugees from the Syria and Iran-Iraq wars.

Despite this richness in faith and culture, stress and social tensions have intensified due to the high unemployment rate and limited access to health and education services. This is why for the past two years, UPP and UNDP have invested in the Community Center, developing the space as an epicenter for promoting co-existence, building social cohesion and encouraging local development.

Dukan Valley/ Arbat - A species of dove sited in the grasslands. Photo: Rebeen Rahman Rahim/2017

Shahidan/ Arbat – new chicks graze with their mother hen. Photo: Rebeen Rahman Rahim/2015

Arbat town, Arbat – A Goose conserves body warmth by perching on one leg. Photo: Rebeen Rahman Rahim/2016

Shahidan/ Arbat– Gulala sura (the red flower). Photo: Rebeen Rahman Rahim/2015

Hemn, 36 and Rebeen, 32 are both part-time photographers with more than 30 years combined experience and a passion to capture images that encourage people to protect their environment and one-another. “Photos are like a mirror to show the past and present to people. I want to remind people of how it used to be – the green spaces [in Arbat] are becoming less and less today as a consequence of conflict, construction and a lack of connection,” describes Rebeen Rahman Rahim.

With generous funding from the Government of Germany, the community center has supported awareness raising sessions for more than 1,800 community member on GBV and SGBV, provided psycho-social support services and legal aid to more than 40 survivors of gender based violence and engaged more than 1,200 IDPs, refugees and host community members in a range of training courses – including languages, IT and the arts.