Syrian refugee girls: What I want to be when I grow up

Story highlights

  • Meredith Hutchison takes photos of Syrian girl refugees as their future selves
  • One family cancels their preteen daughter's engagement after seeing images of her
  • Photographer: These girls "are powerfully stepping into their future"

(CNN)"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

It's a question that boys and girls in the Western world get asked all the time. But imagine never having been asked that question.
That's the reality for many Syrian girls, says Meredith Hutchison, the photographer behind an extraordinary project that asks these young refugees to picture themselves in the future.
There's 12-year-old Haja, the astronaut, in white with a goldfish bowl helmet; Amani, 10, the pilot standing proudly in front of an airport runway; and not one but three doctors, including Hiba, 9, who sees herself as a pediatrician.
"These girls are just incredible," Hutchison says. "They've experienced all this trauma and violence, and yet it doesn't define them."

Boys see world expand, while it shrinks for girls

The photos were all taken in Jordan at the Zaatari refugee camp and the nearby city of Mafraq -- home to some 160,000 registered refugees altogether, many living below the poverty line, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Hutchison, a program manager with the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian nongovernmental organization, took the photos as part of a project called Vision Not Victim, which encourages girls to envision their futures and helps them make a plan to achieve it.
"In many of the places we work, including Jordan, we see that when they hit adolescence, the world for boys expands and the world for girls shrinks," Hutchison says.
Add the trauma of war -- fleeing your home while being shelled and losing loved ones -- and the battle to survive in a strange country, often facing harassment in the street, domestic violence or early marriage.
"I had a lot of parents say to me, 'Because of what we experienced in Syria and what we're experiencing now in Jordan, I can't bring myself to hope for the future,' " Hutchison says.

'He was just in awe that this could be his daughter'

But when these parents see photos of their daughters, their reactions are often astonishing.
Hutchison remembers one girl who was engaged to be married though she was younger than 13. (The photographer asked that the girl's name not be used to protect her identity.)
"I distinctly remember the moment when we showed her parents her vision images. Her mom was just ecstatic and her father ... was absolutely silent -- and smiling -- but silent, thumbing through the images.
"I think he was just in awe that this could be his daughter."
By the end of the program, the parents had called off their daughter's engagement and had committed to helping her finish her education.
That's the power of the photographs -- something unquantifiable happens to the girls, Hutchison says.
"I've taken to calling it the chin-to-chest index. ... When the girls start the program ... their heads are down, their shoulders are bent, and they are just small," she says.
"Looking at the images (at the end of the program): There is nothing small about these girls. They are larger than life. They are powerfully stepping into their future."