A beautiful story, one filled with hope and with resilience, and told with compassion, has the ability to inspire action.

The collaboration between photojournalist/cinematographer, Carey Wagner, and CARE, a humanitarian organization focused on fighting global poverty, is doing just this for Syrian refugees.

During World War II, CARE sent its first packages to European refugees. Now, over 70 years later, the once displaced children who received those first packages are paying forward the kindness they received by writing letters to Syrian refugee children living in Jordan.

“I know it is very difficult to adjust in a different country. I feel very deeply for you. There will be better times ahead,” writes Helga, a a World War II survivor from Berlin to Sajeda, a 16-year old Syrian refugee.

Part of the letter is read out loud in the video Wagner created as well as on the CARE website.

Five years ago, after after spending 10 years working as a staff photographer at newspapers in California and Florida, Wagner made the leap to freelance work. Since then she has been telling stories about women around the world.

“I do feel like woman are extremely strong, but they are taking on so much. I feel like to be able to be a part of that, to help women communicate … I think that can only help our world,” said Wagner about her focus.

In the past, Wagner has covered gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea, child marriage in Nepal, sex trafficking in Seattle, meth addiction and childbirth in California, street harassment in New York and domestic violence in Florida.

Carey Wagner
Carey Wagner

She has twice been a fellow with the International Reporting Project; this past summer she traveled to Indonesia where she reported on women in Islam and what their day-to-day life looks like outside of the context of terrorism.

Her ability and her desire to communicate hope within the perimeters of her storytelling contributed to her success documenting CARE’s Special Delivery Project.

In early 2016, Wagner traveled with CARE to four cities in the United States and then to Irbid and Zarqa in Jordan to first film the former European refugees and then the Syrian children who were recently forced to flee from their homes.

“The most challenging part of telling stories, this one included, is editing down the story into a few minutes while leaving in the emotion, complexity and spirit of each person. I love that part, but I also feel like people share so many profound thoughts and details about their lives that I’m not able to share in the end,” Wagner said.

Helga Kissell sends a letter of hope to Sajeda, 16, who is a Syrian refugee in Jordan. Her father having been killed in an air raid in Berlin, her familyÕs home bombed and destroyed, Helga Kissell (pictured right) and her mother fled to an uncleÕs home in the Bavarian village of Hohenschwangau. It was in her uncleÕs camera shop where 16-year-old Helga met an American soldier, Leo Kissell, who, after returning to the United States, began sending Helga CARE Packages. Helga immigrated to the United States, where she married Leo in 1948.
Helga Kissell sends a letter to Sajeda. After her father having was killed in an air raid in Berlin, Helga Kissell (pictured right) and her mother fled to an uncle’s home in the Bavarian village of Hohenschwangau. It was in her uncle’s camera shop where 16-year-old Helga met an American soldier, Leo Kissell, who, after returning to the United States, began sending Helga CARE Packages.

Wagner shared the history of the story over an email with ivoh. The story was first broken by Mashable, which published an extensive exclusive on their site which was viewed across the world. Since then, other media outlets, including PBS Newshour, BBC World Service, NowThis, The Huffington Post, and NBC, have picked up the story, leading to thousands of shares on social media.

The stories, which have been adapted to fit multiple media, have served as a positive message of hope in a time when so many people are used to only seeing brutal and shocking images.

The recipients of the CARE packages gain a sense of solidarity by hearing the stories and words of those who also once had to flee their own home and adapt to a new country.

Wagner recognizes the importance of identifying the type of work she is producing. Working in newspapers, it is expected that a situation is reported on within the ethics of journalism. But, when it comes to working with a non-profit, there is more opportunity to create a situation in order to tell a story.

“The lines are blurred, but you really should be transparent and be like, hey, this is from this organization and they set this up or this happened in this way. I don’t want to create it and pretend to the viewer it wasn’t created. Ethically, you still want to work within your realm.”

When asked if she thought her work was successful, Wagner replied, “What is the metric on that? Do you want people to write letters? Do you want people to donate money? Is it more about people understanding things in a different way or not just seeing Syrian refugees as this other or this connection to terrorism or is it more about relating to people in the world?”

Wagner then noted that CARE already feels like the project is a success.

Sajeda is 16 years old and lives in an apartment in Zarqa, Jordan, where her mother is raising her and her four siblings alone on February 10, 2016. She left Syria with her family in 2012 when her neighborhood was no longer safe from bombing. She misses their home in Syria and remembers fondly the trees and flowers in their yard and how their family and friends would spend time together. To express herself, Sajeda enjoys drawing, writing stories and reciting Arabic rap music. She reads the news about Syria regularly, and her dream is to become a political journalist. When Sajeda received a letter from WWII refugee Helga Kissell in Colorado Springs, CO, she said, 'Helga understands my situation and she feels for me,' and added, 'Helga made me feel like I exist.' CARE provides psychosocial support to Sajeda through a safe recreational place to draw, socialize with other Syrian and Jordanian peers and engage with professional case workers.
Sajeda is 16 years old and lives in an apartment in Zarqa, Jordan, where her mother is raising her and her four siblings alone. She left Syria with her family in 2012 when her neighborhood was no longer safe from bombing. She reads the news about Syria regularly, and her dream is to become a political journalist. When Sajeda received a letter from WWII refugee Helga Kissell, she said, ‘Helga understands my situation and she feels for me,’ and added, ‘Helga made me feel like I exist.’ CARE provides psychosocial support to Sajeda through a safe recreational place to draw, socialize with other Syrian and Jordanian peers and engage with professional case workers.

For the refugees themselves, as well as for many battling with trauma, sharing the story becomes part of the healing process.

“I think for some people it has empowered them just by telling their story and I think they had an effect just by releasing their story if no one has ever heard it before,” Wagner said.

Having escaped the Russian invasion of East Prussia, Gunter Nitsch and his family made their way, illegally at times, to West Germany. In order to survive, he often stole potatoes from fields along the way. An author of three books about his experience in Germany, and later as a young man in New York City, Gunter lives with his wife Mary in Chicago on January 31, 2016. He typed a letter of hope to Zaher, an 8 year old Syrian refugee boy living in Jordan. ÒI am 78 years old and live in the United States,Ó his letter to Zaher began. He wrote, ÒSeventy years ago, when I was 8 years old like you, I was also a refugee. IÔm writing to share my story with you to let you know that, no matter how bad things may seem, there are good people in this world who can make everything better.Ó
Having escaped the Russian invasion of East Prussia, Gunter Nitsch and his family made their way, illegally at times, to West Germany. In order to survive, he often stole potatoes from fields along the way. He typed a letter of hope to Zaher, an 8 year old Syrian refugee boy living in Jordan.

With CARE, collecting and producing stories is a collaborative process. Oftentimes, it is up to Wagner to decide how to present her subject’s narrative.

While reporting for the International Reporting Project in Papua New Guinea, Wagner felt it was up to her to not only show violence, but to show what is being done and what more can be accomplished.

“When I was in Papua New Guinea, people were telling me, I have never had anyone listen to me,” Wagner said. “We don’t talk about these things. It is not cool to be emotional and complain about something. No one has listened to me.”

When looking at Wagner’s portfolio, it is easy to question if she gets overwhelmed by the amount of trauma that her subjects have experienced in their lives.

Zaher is eight years old and lives in an apartment with his family in Irbid, Jordan. His family left Syria several years ago, not long after the war broke out, but he still remembers and misses his home in Syria. Zaher goes to school in the community and enjoys playing soccer when he’s able to go outside. His family has received emergency cash assistance from CARE to help them with purchasing food and other basic household items.
Zaher lives in an apartment with his family in Irbid, Jordan. His family left Syria several years ago, not long after the war broke out, but he still remembers and misses his home. Zaher goes to school in the community and enjoys playing soccer when he’s able to go outside. His family has received emergency cash assistance from CARE to help them with purchasing food and other basic household items.

“I was in Jordan and I was playing this game of ice cream freeze with the kids in the street. I mean, it was emotional, but you still have fun and that is the thing that sometimes gets lost,” Wagner said.

The collaboration between Wagner and CARE, shows how storytelling not only benefits individuals facing a time of crisis, but also has the power to reveal resilience.  

“There are bad things that have happened, but there is joy in life. And, when you see it in a place, in another kind of situation, it is more meaningful.”