Beyond the Fire

Fouad Saleh spent much of his childhood in a Syrian refugee camp. Zubair Ahmed watched his father pass away after a rocket hit his neighborhood. A little boy carrying a gun bigger then himself came to Chuku Mansery's home and demanded money – her house was burned down when her mother told the boy that she had nothing to give.

What Fouad, Zubair and Chuku have in common is not only that they have seen extreme violence. They all live in the U.S. now and they are now teenagers whose lives and personalities have been shaped by war. They, along with 13 other teens from eight countries, tell their stories on a Web site called Beyond the Fire.

Beyond the Fire, created by Sesh Kannan of Washington D.C., combines elements of both the documentary film and the online diary. The site allows teenage refugees of war to tell their stories through an interactive interface. Each story is told in words, sound and photos and visitors can post comments and navigate their way through a number of nations and time periods.

Kannan conceived of Beyond the Fire when he read a news article last year about how the youth of America don’t generally understand what happens in war. "It's not all smart bombs," Kannan says. He points out that most Amercian youth don’t see images of the ways civilians are affected by war; how they become displaced, become refugees, etc. "There is a lot more to war – it's not just a bad guy, good guy thing,” he adds.

What Kannan hoped to do was convey the human effect of war to the younger generation by giving them a place to start a dialogue with their peers, rather than simply having an adult read them text-book material. While Kannan works on film documentaries, he says that the online format gives visitors a chance to really connect with the material. "It made sense to work online," he says. "Film is passive. [A Web site] can be more of an exploration." With help from Electric Shadows, a grant program run by the Independent Television Service (ITVS), and Free Range Graphics, Kannan was able to create a site that captured the visual and sound elements of film along with the dynamic benefits of the Web.

At Beyond the Fire, visitors are required to explore by virtue of the site's design. Once you "Begin your journey," as the site asks, you find yourself on a map of the world. Teenagers stand on eight countries – Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone – and you visit each teen by clicking on his or her photo. The site makes its visitors into online travelers; you can even create a passport to keep track of whom you have visited and comments you have made in an online "travelog."

When visitors to the site have to be actively involved they will better absorb the reality of these teenagers' stories, says Kannan. The site was created to work in a classroom or for individuals. Indeed, Kannan's vision is reaching both audiences: since its inception earlier this year, Beyond the Fire has been online siine April of 2004 and so far over 1,100 visitors have created passports. The reality of war, as the creators of site hope to communicate, is not just one of loss of material items, loss of home or even loss of life. What really happens in war, says Kannan, is much deeper.

Lila Farah, 17, from Somalia, was shot in the leg at seven when she went into her own backyard and saw a man with a gun. Somalia is a country that, since the UN and U.S. pulled out inn 1995, has been mired in violence between warring factions. Lila and her family escaped to Kenya when she was eight and obtained refugee status in the United States in 1996.

Telling her story on the Beyond the Fire site was helpful, Lila told WireTap, because now, "It feel's like it's OK to share with the world what happened to me. I'm proud of myself and my family – that we made it through."

Yet part of the effect of war, for many, is the inability to speak of the experience. Kannan originally contacted 25 to 30 teenagers who now live in Boston, Mass., Atlanta, Ga., Portland, Maine, and other parts of the east coast. But only around half of those stories made it to the Web. Many people who survive war end up living with a reoccurring case of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Others cannot speak out for fear of repercussions against their family members still in their home countries.

"Finding teens from Iraq took a while," says Kannan. When he began to seek out these stories, the second war in Iraq had already begun and Iraqis and foreigners were being kidnapped in Iraq. "The initial group [of Iraqi teens]," says Kannan," was hesitant because they still had family back in Iraq."

Events in the U.S. also make it difficult for refugees to speak out. For the teens he interviewed, "Coming to the U.S. has not necessarily been a brilliant experience," says Kannan. Lila, for example, says that when she arrived in the States in 1996, people made fun of the way she spoke and dressed. She wears Jijab (a Muslim head scarf) and says that some of the children in her Arizona school called her a "witch." Her family now lives in Portland, Maine, and while there are still many who do not understand Lila's culture as a Somalian and Muslim, she says, "there are some people accepting us for who we are now."

It was very hard for Kannan to get in touch with inteviewees; they are all very active in school and most of them have to work to help support their families. "When they first came here," Kannan says, "they had a hard time." Many of the families of the teenagers Kannan spoke with received just three months of federal aid. Although their parents were often educated professionals in their home countries, language barriers and cultural differences made it hard for them to find work suitable to their skills. Beserta Osmani, a 19-year-old from Serbia who now lives in the Bronx, has a life considerably different from her pre-war life in Kosovo. Her father was a journalist in Kosovo, but in New York City he works in a factory, says Kannan.

These teenagers also have to catch up in their studies – war interrupts education, says Kannan. What he found was that, "[The teenagers] are not just resilient, but fiercely determined." Shaima Abdul, 17, from Afghanistan never had very much formal schooling. Instead, she weaved carpets to help her family survive. She came to the U.S. in 2001 and now she is in high school, catching up with the rest of the students her age.

The battles these teenage refugees fought in their home countries and fight in the U.S. give them a unique perspective on the world. "I'm really curious to see where they go in the next 15 years," says Kannan. "I think they have a lot of potential." Lila wants to return to Somalia some day and help create schools and clean up the country. "There are so many dreams – I want to change everything," she says. Although she does not remember Somalia before it was overtaken by war, she is captivated by the way her father describes the country as it was years ago. She hopes one day it will be that way again, but in the meantime her family does all they can to help their relatives back home. "Every money we're getting, we're sending it back to Somalia," says Lila. She herself works at an ice cream store after school and will attend college next fall.

Even though Lila has left war, war has not left her. She still has a scar in her leg from the bullet that hit her, and she still fears violence in an immediate way. "Looking at Iraq, right now," Lila says, "I can feel myself being there." On 9/11, Lila's family worried that they might be caught in yet another war. "9/11 – that brought my whole family to tears. We felt like we were back in Somalia."

Kannan points out that the U.S.’ “War Against Terror” will continue, most likely, for a long time. He challenges young American people to defy what he calls a "10,000-year-old culture where the only way to solve things is to go to war." Kannan, and the teens he interviewed, say that there must be a better way. They also believe it is up to the younger generation to find solutions, beginning with the effort to understanding the experiences of those who have survived, first-hand.

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