Posing in front of handcrafted stage sets as if starring in a school play, refugee children from Burundi and Syria re-enacted scenes of escape from their home countries while others dressed up for their dream jobs.
The colorful images are part of a three-month photo project by French photographer Patrick Willocq, working on assignment with international charity Save the Children and U.K. education publisher Pearson to highlight the plight of refugee kids. Frustrated that most photos of refugee children in mainstream media depict images of despair and hopelessness, he decided to let the children tell their own stories in their own way.
"By humanizing personal stories, I thought the world would take notice of the breadth and complexity of children seeking refuge," Willocq said in a statement to The WorldPost. "The idea was to show real children and tell their real stories, by involving the subjects, listening to them, creating a décor together with them, by staging their lives and their desires."
Willocq photographed Burundian children at the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania and took pictures of Syrian children in refugee communities in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. With the help of local artists and volunteers, he and the youngsters fashioned large decorative sets from leftover materials found in their communities.
"I wanted the overall artistic feel to be colorful, naïve and surreal to help de-dramatize a bit the stories, so that the audience may look at them without apprehension despite the hardness of the message," he said.
Some 40,000 children live in Tanzania's Nyarugusu camp, according to Save the Children. With over 140,000 inhabitants, it is one of the world's largest and most overcrowded refugee camps, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR noted earlier this year.
Most of the camp's inhabitants are from Burundi. Tens of thousands of Burundians have fled violence and political instability in their home country since it declared independence from Belgium in 1962. Last year, when Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for a third term -- which many citizens say is unconstitutional -- new waves of people streamed out of the country amid a violent crackdown on protesters.
As of Monday, the number of Burundian refugees had surpassed 260,000 people, according to UNHCR. Most had fled to neighboring Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda.
Willocq also spent time in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, near the Syria-Lebanon border, which is home to over 365,000 Syrian refugees, including 190,000 children. More than 1 million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon, comprising one-fifth of the country's population.
The bloody Syrian conflict hit its fifth year in March, and has produced over 4.8 million refugees. Over 6 million more Syrians are internally displaced, and almost 500,000 people have died or been injured as a result of the war.
Over 30 million of the world's refugees are younger than 18, Save The Children says. At least 3 million of them have no access to formal education. Young people who are edged out of educational opportunities are more vulnerable to child labor, forced early marriage, trafficking or even extremism, U.N. education envoy Gordon Brown wrote in a blog post for The WorldPost last year.
My wish for the future is to have a place where I can live peacefully, a place where I can feel established, where I can feel that I'm at home. Girl living in Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania
Even after fleeing their countries, the children featured in Willocq's photos face dangers, hardships, and exploitation. Children in Lebanon's Anjar refugee camp describe working backbreaking 12-hour days, receiving as little as $3 each day to help support their families.
A 15-year-old girl in Tanzania's Nyarugusu refugee camp is afraid to leave the camp for firewood for fear of being attacked. "My wish for the future is to have a place where I can live peacefully, a place where I can feel established, where I can feel that I'm at home, without all of these other problems," she said.
Save the Children hopes Willocq's photos will draw attention to its "New Deal For Every Forcibly Replaced Child" program, which pledges to better protect refugee kids and improve their educational opportunities. Representatives from the charity attended the U.N.-sponsored World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul earlier this week to appeal for financial and logistical support.
The high-level summit was organized to discuss improvements to the world's aid system, but its outcome is unclear. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the only leader from a G7 country to attend, and Doctors Without Borders pulled out of the event earlier this month, branding it a "fig-leaf of good intentions." Days before the event, Oxfam expressed fears that the summit would be an "expensive talking shop."
Willocq's photos can be seen below. All names have been changed to the protect the children's identities.
Watch children who participated in Willocq's photo series tell their stories in the video below.