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Westerners often have a limited view of the Middle East, but the photographs of the exhibit "Tomorrow, God Willing" by Emma LeBlanc '11 provide insight into parts of Iraq and Syria that are seldom seen outside their borders.

LeBlanc originally took a leave of absence from Brown to study Arabic in Damascus, Syria, which she had also done the previous summer, she said.

"I got to the highest level of Arabic," LeBlanc said, "but didn't want to go back to Brown yet."

Because of her continuing interest in the culture and language of Syria, LeBlanc began volunteering at the Dar al Karama — the Arabic phrase for House of Dignity — which is "a home for the old-aged, mentally and physically handicapped, and those seeking refuge from abuse, addiction or poverty," according to a photo caption in the exhibit.

"I finished the Arabic program offered at the University of Damascus and was looking for something else to do," LeBlanc said, "which is how I ended up at the asylum."

"The physical conditions of the place are really shocking at first," she said. "My first impressions were really negative."

But after first glance, LeBlanc realized the asylum was "a lot more complex" than she originally thought, she said.

"People are very happy there," she added. "You've got friends. You've got respect. You've got dignity."

"I heard all these amazing stories," LeBlanc said, which then inspired her to write about and photograph the asylum and its residents.

Each image of the House of Dignity, originally developed in color, is entirely black and white. "I wanted to sort of simplify the House of Dignity," LeBlanc said, so the pictures are "focusing on the people."

The lack of color is meant to be ironic as well, LeBlanc said, because the photographs tell "a story you can't see in black and white."

The exhibit also features portraits of members of Iraqi Awakening Council, which consist of Sunni tribe members that fought alongside al-Qaida until they grew disillusioned and switched sides in 2005. With help from the U.S., they killed Islamic extremists throughout the province of Anbar.

LeBlanc came in contact with the council when a friend approached her in Damascus with an invitation to go to Iraq and photograph them.

"It was pretty overwhelming at first," LeBlanc said of photographing the council members. "I didn't know what I was getting myself into."

LeBlanc said there was obviously "a lot of energy" in the council members she met.

"People were unsure how things would go."

These experiences with the council taught LeBlanc a great deal and gave her an opportunity to "learn something concrete about Iraq," she said.

LeBlanc added that she was able "to learn the processes, not just the results" of the events she had seen on the news.

Before becoming close to the council's tribal fighters, Americans tend to give them "no identity" and "don't see them as people," LeBlanc said, which is why the exhibit includes a large wall completely covered with portraits of members of the council.

"These are people," she said. "They want what's best for them and what's best for their country," but at the same time they are "all totally different."

The pictures of the council, unlike those of the House of Dignity, remained in color.

"The colors felt really soft," LeBlanc said. "I didn't feel that the colors were taking away from anything."

She said she "wanted you to feel like you were actually there" and "face-to-face" with the people on the wall.

This is not the end of LeBlanc's experiences with the House of Dignity and the council. She is currently writing a book of her experiences in the House of Dignity. "It will be mostly oral histories," LeBlanc said, "the stories of the people there."

LeBlanc said she now lives in Syria while she's not at Brown and will continue to volunteer at the House of Dignity about once every two weeks when she's in Syria.

LeBlanc will likely be taking another leave of absence from Brown in order to continue pursuing photojournalism in Iraq, where she hopes to return by the fall.


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