As a stranger sitting shotgun in a prius during rush hour on the 5 North, I was on my way to meet Ameer. The kid that I had heard so much about and that I would have the privilege of telling his story through visual mediums. I remember this as one of the hottest days of September. I recall getting pretty sick this day, probably due to the dryness, but what I remember even more is that Ameer welcomed us into his home and his sweet mother gave us a much-needed bottle of water. I met his sisters and we all just started talking. Not being too quick to pull out the camera, I was so impressed by how honest Ameer was about his story. He wasn’t shy, he was always smiling, and definitely played it cool. Honestly, I didn’t expect the average 16-year old to have as much confidence and approachability as he did.

Ameer is in high school. Just at the age of being ready to be drive, looking into schools, and finding part-time jobs. He and his family are from Iraq and came to the United States as refugees just five years ago. In-between, they were in Syria for about five years as well. Things were getting dangerous in Iraq. Ameer’s older brother had past away, and as an 11-year old, situations like this force you to grow up pretty fast.

Not knowing any English, Ameer was bullied in middle school and admitted that people were pretty racist towards him. He even got into the occasional fight. “I guess people just grow up in high school”, Ameer says, because things are pretty good now that he knows the language. I don’t know about you guys, but people at Ameer’s high school sounds much more grown-up than when I was in high school. Can you even imagine jumping head first into one of the most brutal times in your educational experience not even having the slightest clue what the teacher is saying? It didn’t take him long though. He was quick to pick it up with the help of after-school tutoring provided by the Tiyya Foundation. He even learned Spanish from a lot of his friends. Ameer developed a love for skating and when homework is completed, he enjoys eating In-and-Out burgers and going to skateparks with his friends.

We talked a lot. When the storytelling for the day was exhausted, we talked about other things. Likes, dislikes, the future, photography, first bones that were broken. We hung out a bit at his house and at a couple skate parks: indoor and outdoor. He told me that he doesn’t like chamoy and tries to eat healthy. I told him, “good” because you got to love them vegetables because when you get older, things take a toll on your body. The atmosphere just felt like the most appropriate place to tell an honest story and have fun while doing so. There was this really new skatepark by his house that many little kids were playing by. It was the highlight of my week personally, because it was just so good to be in a real place that didn’t feel like an Orange County bubble. As soon as we started getting video footage and photos, the kids were all over it. They busted out skateboards and watched Ameer in awe. They even nicknamed him “Air-Man”. One of the funniest parts of hanging with these kids was watching them yell “What are those! Whaaat are those!” at each other and pointing at their shoes as demonstrated by the popular internet video.

The Tiyya Foundation has played a significant part in Ameer’s story. When they moved here from Syria, Tiyya had a soccer program for him to join that his sisters now take part in. Tiyya also gave him opportunities for tutoring and helping his family furnish their home. Just a few months ago, Ameer was able to volunteer with the organization for their “Back-to-School” event in which he helped people experiencing language barriers fill out forms and direct them where to go. This experience inspired Ameer to continue working with Tiyya. In turn, Tiyya had planned to surprise Ameer with a scholarship. Part of this story is the Walk for Unity which Ameer attended last year. This year, he was invited to speak. The Walk for Unity was held at the Irvine Global Village Festival where there are tons and tons of organizations celebrating diversity with food, dance, art, and countless festivities. This year’s Walk was a 3K that included an experiential trek that gave the public a feel for what being a refugee in America feels like. It included a language barrier, “finding a job”, and also the ability to attain resources based on your profession and education. It was so interesting because I got to experience the walk and it was pretty hard. The language barrier was first and it was French. Thankfully I passed, but that was sheer luck since I remembered how to say my name and count to ten. During the second barrier, I received a blue card saying that in my home country, I was a lawyer and now I work at a grocery-store. The third barrier was a demonstration that gave people water, but the people with yellow cards (those passed the previous barriers) got a bottle and the people with blue cards (failed the barriers) got a cup. The purpose was to show that resources are hard to come by based on your economic and educational status.

Spending time with Ameer was so meaningful to me. I learned so much in a very short amount of time. It was so pleasant seeing him meeting after meeting with his big smile and the way he always says, “Heh-looo.” It was hilarious. During this project, I reaffirmed my love for storytelling, lifestyle photography, and even my desire to continue my journey in documentary-style videography. With the refugee crisis all over the news, I was reminded about how hard it is to escape persecution, find safety in other countries, and experience the challenges that come along with those things. I take for granted everyday how easy it is to communicate and that finding work is much easier for me than so many people even as a new-grad. Ameer reminded me with a few good quotes that anything is indeed possible. He wants to go to trade school and become an airplane mechanic one day. “Try and fail, but never fail to try” he says. I asked him if there has been anything that he has faced that led to extreme frustration. He said, “Not yet.” I’m so impressed that Ameer was able to learn English and Spanish so quickly. I mean, I’ve tried to learn a bit of Arabic, and the fact that the written and spoken language is totally different from that of English and Spanish? I’d need years and full immersion. I’m thankful to Tiyya for giving me the opportunity to work with them and looking forward to their future with Ameer, his family, and the rest of those involved.