The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In powerful photo shoot, Syrian girls dress for the jobs they want

It began when she asked girls in Congo who were their heroes. They all named Western men: legendary figures like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a worthy role model. But there was no one from their own community they were taught to admire, let alone other strong women.

“There was such a disconnect between the lives of these men and what these girls were experiencing,” said Meredith Hutchison, who was in Central Africa working with a girls organization. “I was looking at and analyzing the media and how women from developing countries were portrayed and it’s almost always as a victim.”

She realized these young girls were rarely asked the most common question to Western youth: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

So first in Congo, and recently with Syrian refugees in Jordan, Hutchison partnered in 2012 with the International Rescue Committee to begin her Vision Not Victim project. She helps adolescent girls realize they can dream big. For several weeks she talks with them, figuring out what they are passionate about. She asks them to draw a picture of it. Then she dresses them up as their future selves and interviews them as if it’s already the future and their dreams have come true.

It’s not about playing pretend. It’s about helping them visualize a life outside their current circumstance.

Then Hutchison photographs the girls acting out the job, some dressed as doctors or scientists or artists, so they can preserve the image forever and use it to articulate their desire for a better life.

“We print the photos to have discussions with parents and community leaders about the potential of their daughters, the need to invest in their education, the need to keep them safe,” Hutchison said. “This is possible and this is what it would look like for your daughter. She has confidence, she can communicate herself, she is powerful.”

The project has encouraged parents to send their daughters back to school, she said. One girl under 13 years old was engaged to be married, but her parents called off the wedding so she could get an education.

For the Syrian girls in Jordan, some still displaced in the Za’atari refugee camp and others resettled in that country, they’re holding a lot of trauma — seeing homes shelled, loved ones killed, lives uprooted. More than 622,000 Syrians are estimated to have escaped across the border to Jordan. They’ve lost everything.

This project lets the young girls know they are allowed to want for themselves.

It gives them hope.

Meet some of the girls Hutchison has photographed and read in their words how they see themselves in the future:

Haja, 12 future astronaut

Fatima, 16, future architect

Mona, 10, future physician

Wissam, 15, future pharmacist

Amani, 10, future pilot

Muntaha, 12, future photographer

Malack, 16, future policewoman

Merwa, 13, future painter