Concord photographer documents the harsh reality for refugees around the world

  • A young displaced woman walks in a dust storm ripping through Maiduguri, Nigeria. Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin’s work has taken him all over Africa, the Middle East and Europe telling the stories and capturing images of refugees. Courtesy of Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin

  • An Afghan family collects themselves after arriving on Lesbos, Greece, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015. Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for The Wall Street Journal. Courtesy of Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin

  • A young Rohingya mother holds her baby in Noya Para, Bangladesh, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. Along with roughly 300 other refugees, she fled Myanmar the day before on a makeshift raft made of bamboo and jerry cans. Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin/UNICEF Courtesy of Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin

  • Passengers look out the windows as a bus departs Malakal in South Sudan in 2013. When the bus broke down and days went by without help, journalist Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin and another man walked for hours to retrieve food and water for other passengers. Courtesy of Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin

  • Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin of Concord sits down to talk after his presentation to St. Paul’s School students on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Women pick leaves from a tree that they will later cook for dinner in the small village of Apada just outside of Aweil, South Sudan, Friday, March 10, 2017. Now entering its fourth year, the conflict in South Sudan has disrupted farmers’ abilities to plant and harvest. That combined with the country’s skyrocketing inflation and increasingly unpredictable rains has put an estimated one million on the brink of starvation with many now being forced to forage for food to survive. UNICEF/Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin UNICEF/Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin

Monitor columnist
Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin admits that he’s fighting an uphill battle, but he wants you to look with him through his lens nonetheless.

He sees an apartment building in Aleppo, Syria, crumbling and empty. He sees a man in Northern Iraq covering his face, reacting to the death of a loved one.

He sees a Somali man tenderly holding his young son after walking 50 miles with no food, and he sees children stuck in the South Sudan desert hiding under their broken-down bus for shelter against the blazing sun.

Knowles-Coursin wants you to see these things. He wants to bring the world into focus.

“War is going to exist, but that doesn’t mean you should be okay with it,” Knowles-Coursin, a photojournalist from Concord, told me after his presentation Tuesday at St. Paul’s School. “Whether things will change or not seems irrelevant. I hope I can enact some sort of change or shake the tree a little.”

He’s a freelancer, tall, slender and bearded, whose dark eyes grow sad when he talks about his work, and whose words and pictures have been published in some of the media biggies, like Time, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and leading European publications.

He lives in New York City now and says he still loves his hometown. But ever since graduating from Concord High in 2002, Knowles-Coursin’s restless wings have spread wide, because people like him simply cannot sit still.

He disappeared at the beach at 6 years old, scaring the you-know-what out of his parents, and he’s been exploring on his own ever since.

He taught English in China, worked in public health in Latin America and Honduras, and has lived in Turkey.

But it was while living in Rwanda five years ago that Knowles-Coursin chose to document war and injustice, with his overriding theme becoming the hardships suffered by refugees, many of whom are children.

“They are denied their childhood,” he told his audience. “(Childhood) is not a given. It’s a privilege.”

He spoke for about 45 minutes Tuesday, breaking down his presentation into three separate stories, while opening with general comments on why he does what he does.

By time he finished, sophomore Erik Hoets had been touched by his Knowles-Coursin’s story.

“It’s incredible. It’s a different view about what is going on in the world,” Hoets said.

Added fellow sophomore Andrew Kapadia: “It’s different to hear about it from the news. This brings it to a whole different level emotionally.”

Mission, therefore, accomplished. The students saw pictures on a wide screen, one by one, with Knowles-Coursin explaining about each from atop a stage at Memorial Hall.

“The refugee experience is an experience characterized by loss,” Knowles-Coursin said. “It’s loss of identity. It’s loneliness.”

He showed photos of Syrian refugees, focusing on a 15-year-old boy who had been at sea for 11 days, vomiting, crying and wondering before landing on the shores of Sicily. That marked just a small segment of a trip that would end later after a train ride to Sweden.

Knowles-Coursin also showed a family leaving the violence in Ukraine, where rebels and Russians continue to fight soldiers from the central government in Kiev.

The children were diabetics, their parents fearful that blocked and muddy supply lines would stop precious insulin from getting through. So the four of them left, traveling just 30 miles away, yet leaving all they’d ever known behind.

The third story showed that this type of journalism – Knowles-Coursin’s type of journalism – means that going home after a long day at the office simply does not apply.

It’s the story about a family leaving the violent civil war in South Sudan in 2013. They climb on a cramped bus for the long drive north, but the bus breaks down on a desert road. They’re low on water, the temperature is above 100 degrees, and children sit under the bus, in the shade.

They wait two days for help, which never comes.

Knowles-Coursin is on the bus. He suggests to a father that they go to the nearest village for food and water. So they go, an eight- or nine-hour walk, through the day and into night.

They rest, return with food and water, and continue to wait for someone to stop and fix the bus.

“People ask why and how they can fathom risking their lives and their children’s lives to cross rivers and oceans and deserts,” Knowles-Coursin said to his audience. “The answer, especially if you’re fleeing a conflict, is there is no other choice.”

The other question, of course, is why does Knowles-Coursin do this? An eight-hour walk? For an assignment?

He admitted he’s had several relationships “torpedoed” because of his work.

“But I want people to be aware,” he said.

He’s out reporting in some unforgiving place for six months a year. The Middle East and Africa are his offices. He takes the photos, conducts the interviews, writes the copy.

A powerful story that was not part of Knowles-Coursin’s presentation Monday concerned a little boy named Aboubacar Aboubacar, whose family fled Nigeria because militants from the terror group Boko Haram had attacked their village.

There’s a photo of Halima Aboubacar holding her 1-year-old son, who would later die from malnutrition after a long journey.

Wrote Knowles-Coursin, “Sixteen days after he arrived at the hospital, Aboubacar Aboubacar died, his small body finally unable to sacrifice any more of itself. Like the thousands of other civilians who have died as a result of conflict, starvation and disease in northern Nigeria, his death went unnoticed to those beyond his family.”

We know about Aboubacar, though. Knowles-Coursin told us.

“That was a tough assignment,” he said. “I still get hit in the head by that stuff.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)