Courage / by Paul Choy

At just 19 years old Abdulazez is already one of the most inspirational people I have ever met.

Originally from Syria, Abdulazez is one of the millions of people forced to flee their homes as war and conflict arrived uninvited into their lives. I first met him in a desolate, miserable refugee camp in Northern Greece. He came charging up to me excitedly, after hearing my broad English accent.

“Are you a journalist?” - he asked.

“No, no” - I replied, well aware that journalists were looked upon with more than a degree of mistrust within the camps.

“It’s ok, I don’t mind if you are a journalist. I just want to practice my English”.

And so started an unlikely friendship.

I say unlikely because, as Abdulazez was quick to chastise me, shortly after assuming his self-appointed role of my translator, I hadn’t actually taken the time to get to know any of the people whose stories I was sharing.

Sure I had photographed many hundreds of people fleeing the war-torn regions of the Middle East, and I had listened to the stories they had to tell me, but just a quickly as I had captured their portraits I was moving on to the next camp, and the next set of experiences. What I hadn’t done was taken the time to find out who those people were, as individuals not refugees.

As Abdulazez pointed out to me, hearing their stories is easy, living their experiences is much more difficult.

And so, as we made our way through the camps of Northern Greece, Abdulazez shared his experiences with me. He asked me to imagine life in his shoes. He had been happy in Syria. He had been studying to become a graphic designer and wanted nothing more than to follow his dream of becoming a digital artist. Instead, his family found themselves forced to flee the country they loved, and making the treacherous journey to the safety of Europe.

And yet, despite the challenges he faced, he never seemed to lose his passion for life, or his dreams for the future. Determined to make the best of every situation, he set about learning everything he could, from anyone he could. He taught himself English in less than a year. In less than two years, he was teaching English lessons to other refugees, explaining concepts of the language which would challenge many native speakers.

He has become a voice of the people, whose voices had been lost within the crisis. And his voice is strong.

The video of his open letter to Donald Trump, entitled "Dear Donald", has been viewed by more than 13 MILLION people around the world.

And his Through Refugee Eyes photography project has captured the experiences of the refugees in a way only someone who has walked in their shoes could do.

Today he has found the safety he seeks, in Belgium, where he is busy building a new life for himself. Within days of arriving, he bought his a book on the Flemish language and set about learning his second language in as many years.

It is that determination to simply get on with life, no matter what, which inspires me most about him. At just 19 years of age he has already stood up to challenges most of us could never imagine. And he has done it with a smile on his face. It is a smile I have rarely seen him without. It was that smile which was the subject of one of the first things he ever said to me, something I will never forget:

“Just because we smile, it doesn’t mean we aren’t crying inside”.

The world needs more people like Abdulazez, people who aren’t afraid to smile and cry at exactly the same time.