Creating Memories for Refugees in Onondaga County

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Social Problem

Thousands and thousands of people have been forced to leave their home country and flee to neighboring countries due to their fear of persecution because of wars, environmental disasters, politics, and more. They move to other countries hoping to find help and safety, leaving behind everything they own, even some of their beloved ones as well as their memories. Many of these refugees move when their country cannot afford to help them and they are in extreme poverty, lacking the basic life essentials such as shelter, food and clothing. Refugees entering the US for the first time often do not possess the resources, particularly financial and social, to have family portraits taken in their new home. Family portraits can serve as a means of acclimation into a new community, while these timeless artifacts simultaneously celebrate the beginning of a new chapter in a refugee family’s life.

Secondly, young budding professional photographers often face age discrimination while starting out in the industry. Regardless of their photographic expertise and skill level, they are less likely to book paid photography jobs due to not being taken seriously as professionals with their young age. This problem is perpetuated as photographers that are not hired do not get portfolio-growing opportunities, which often open doors to more freelance opportunities.

Onondaga County has one of the highest refugee populations per capita in the United States. Of the 465,398 people currently living in Onondaga County, around 9,500 are refugees (Allen). This accounts for 2.04% of the population. According to the Bureau of Refugee Services, the highest population of refugees in the area are coming from countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Burma, and Ukraine (Bureau). However, it is important to note that since President Trump took office in 2016, the influx of refugees into the country has decreased by 72% (Breidenbach). This could be a potential threat.

According to a study done by the Washington Post, 36% of refugees that entered the United States are on food stamps. Further, the unemployment rate of refugees is 12% higher than the average American (Vijaya). This means that disposable income in the refugee population is lower than the average American. Having a lower income makes justifying extra spending on family portraits difficult. On average, family portraits taken by professionals cost anywhere between $350 and $500 (Alveraz). Our organization will provide an affordable way for refugee family’s to build a community and create memories.

Aljabouri is an Iraqi refugee family that moved to the U.S more than twelve years ago. Mr. and Mrs. Aljabouri had three girls when they left their home country searching for a better life and escaping from poverty. “We didn’t really have anything to leave behind. All what I had was my husband, my three girls, and some memories in my heart.” said Mrs. Aljabouri, who continued when asked about family portraits saying: “I wish we had some photos to show to the girls now, but we needed to use every penny we had wisely because we didn’t have many of them.” (Aljabouri)

Current Organizations

There are currently three main organizations focusing on refugees in Onondaga County. They are Refugee Resettlement Services, Stability Services, and the Refugee Alliance of Greater Syracuse. However, none of the three services mentioned provide affordable family portrait services. Refugee Resettlement Services is part of 211 CNY, which is a non-profit located in Central New York. The Refugee Resettlement Services “Provides resettlement services for those forced to leave their countries due to unsafe conditions, including help with registering for English language classes, locating translators, finding housing, securing medical care, and applying for jobs. Also offers citizenship and ESOL classes” (Refugee Resettlement). They also offer immigration consultations. Stability Services is part of the Catholic Charities of Onondaga County. It operates as a non-profit. The goal of Stability services is to “connect refugees to education, housing, jobs, English language class, health care, and more” (Stability). Something to note is that Stability Services is a Catholic organization which could present some potential biases. Lastly, the Refugee Alliance of Greater Syracuse is part of Core Partners. Unlike the above organizations, Core Partners is a for-profit organization. Despite this, the Refugee Alliance of Greater Syracuse does not receive funding through Core Partners. It is run solely by volunteers. Some of the services they provide are resettlement, community integration, ethnic leadership empowerment, and community engagement (Refugee Alliance).

There are some examples in the market today that serve the common need of getting a family portrait for different groups of people who cannot afford it or never had the chance to get one. However; none of these examples exist in the targeted region. The Kindness Lens is a non profit that provides free family portraits for the poor in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati region, which is a region known for its philanthropic efforts. Having someone come to take a family portrait can cost $500, which is even considered on the low end of the cost spectrum in this area. Such a high cost prevents many poor families from purchasing a professional photography services. “Professional photography is expensive. It is easy to take for granted small things like having the means to proudly display your family on your wall.”. The service was announced on Facebook and in less than 48 hours, 70 time slots were filled, which showed the need for the service. The Kindness Lens has gotten corporate support from partners as well as messages from families appreciating the service. (Hansel)

Honor Portraits is another non profit in Delray Beach that offers free portrait photos to military veterans. Its purpose is to make them feel honored and appreciated by the community for what they have offered the country. Then, Honor Portraits photographs are exhibited in The Cornell Art Museum in Delray Beach's Old School Square. “It is nice for someone to come out and honor us that way,” said veteran and Patriot Guard Assistant State Captain Jeff Garten. (Christian)

Moreover, Good Shepherd Community Care and the Chinese American Fine Art Society is a non profit that provided free family portraits for the Thanksgiving weekend from Nov. 25 to Nov. 27 at South Cove Manor at Quincy Point Rehabilitation Center. With many family members visiting their loved ones over the Thanksgiving holiday, it was the perfect time to capture professional portraits and create lasting memories. Many happy family reunions took place, demonstrating the Chinese virtue of filial piety toward elders. (Good Shepherd Community Care)

Furthermore, Local photographer Brian Limoyo teamed up with Reception House, a local refugee resettlement agency, to take free family portraits of newly arrived refugees in Kitchener. ""There is a reaffirming power of the image of the family,"" Limoyo said. ""I wanted to put faces to this idea of what a refugee is. They are just everyday, ordinary families."" He published these photos in a book called ""The Great Canadian Family Portrait Project"" along with a brief description of what the families left behind and their hopes for their new life in Canada. Limoyo wanted to help represent these refugees in a positive way and also raise awareness about the plight faced by many refugees. (Latif)

Giving Smiles is a project by Sheila Hudson to take photos of babies at the Montgomery County’s Nurse-Family Partnership, which is an organization that works with first-time moms, visiting them when they are pregnant until their children are two years old, providing mentorship and parenting education. With each session, Hudson provides parents with $200 worth of prints, a framed portrait, and digital picture files. She spends about $40 per session on equipment and supplies and in order to fund her work. Hudson accepts donations in order to add more smiles to families with newborn babies. “We’ll be able to remember him forever at this age, which is so fun, and it’s going so fast already,” said Stephanie Major, a mom of a nine-month-old baby.

Each of these organizations fulfill the needs of a specific group of people who need to capture some memories but cannot afford to pay for a portrait. All of these social ventures are non-profit organizations that rely on funds whether from other organizations or from donations. To run a photography business, there are needed professional equipment and supplies in order for photographers to do their job and create high quality photographs. A location is also essential where the photo sessions will take place, whether it is a professional studio, or a public outdoor spot. It needs to be easily accessible for the refugees and at the same time appropriate to take quality photos.

Our Team

Our team has the needed knowledge and experiences that can drive our business to be successful. Abby was obsessed with photography in her teenage years. She was struggling to make her portfolio in order to pursue her passion because she was never taken seriously by others. Her experience reflects the young photographers’ need of a chance to put them on the right track of their journey as photographers. Jamie is double majoring in marketing and entrepreneurship, so she has the knowledge of how to pursue a business idea and take it to the next level. She has the experience we need in the team to have a successful business plan that is thoroughly thoughtful.

Dina is originally from Egypt so she speaks Arabic fluently. Her native language is the spoken language of most of the refugees in the Onondaga County including Syrian, Iraqi, Somalian, and Sudanese. Therefore, she has the ability to easily communicate and connect with many of the refugees that we are trying to help. With the completeness of our team, we believe that we have the skills, experiences, and knowledge that make use uniquely able to pursue this social opportunity.


To empower refugee families to create communities alongside young photographers


To create a world where refugees can create community through accessible and affordable family portraits, while simultaneously promoting the empowerment of aspiring photographers

Our Products and Services

On The Wall holds monthly photography events located in the most concentrated areas in Syracuse. Each photography event provides refugee families with a one-hour portrait session on location. In Syracuse, photos are taken along Green Lakes with a beautiful background. To secure a photo session, refugee families, often recruited via word of mouth in any of the three Refugee organization in Onondaga County or social media, fill in a print or an online application to reserve a slot in the schedule. Photo sessions typically are requested one month in advance and are selected two weeks before the session date. Photo sessions are $60, competitive and/or less expensive to market rate of budget photographers such as Sears Portraits or The Picture People (Picture People vs. Sears Portrait Studio).

Photographers are selected via a competitive application process. Because our photography program brings a mass of opportunities that are not available to the general youth photographer population, we receive a large amount of applications and admit applicants at a scale of about 30% to ensure quality demands of the professional photography world. The photographer application process is three rounds:

  1. Written Application: Photographers provide resume and respond to two essay prompts regarding their care for refugee families and their passion for photography.
  2. Photography Portfolio: The most competitive part of the application. Applicants are required to provide ten portraits to be reviewed by the Applicant Board, which includes refugee photographers who have photographed at least six sessions
  3. Interview/Shadowing: The final round of photographer applicants attends an On The Wall session in order for the Applicant Board to review their client relations. The photography applicants act as assistants of sessions and do not photograph, but their interactions with families are monitored and judged. This is a crucial stage of the application process because communication with the refugees might not be easy as some do not speak English fluently. It is important that all photographers are capable with professionally handling different situations. After selected, photographers are trained through a Photographer's Guide.

Locations for On The Wall photo events are secured to property that is public, accessible, and is not limited by a commercial license. This allows our event space to be used for free. The parameter for sessions is highlighted in the Photographer's Guide so that youth photographers can be supervised at all times. Photography events are two hours long, typically on Saturday mornings offering sessions at 10am and 11am. We serve five families and five photographers (working two hour shifts) per hour, totaling ten families and five photographers recruited per event. In case of inclement weather, photo sessions are rescheduled for one or two weeks following the original date (this is validated in the contract of both families and photographers).

In case of cancellation, photographers are placed on review and are not hired for at least the next month's session. Families who cancel without a week's notice sacrifice half the session cost ($30). If they cancel less than 24 hours' notice sacrifice the entire cost of their session ($60). Within a week of the session, youth photographers will edit photos and submit the top thirty images to On The Wall’s photo sharing website. Our staff then reviews the images and chooses the top twenty images to upload onto a high resolution photography website. The link is then shared with the family. In the family contract, it is stated that there are two weeks of post-processing time allocated before images are due to families. Often, they are delivered within a week, but the extra one-week window provides us with time to re-edit photos or deal with any technical difficulties that may arise.

Works Cited

Aljabouri, Kalthom. “Iraqi Refugee Family” [personal interview], 3 Mar. 2019.

Allen, Peter, and Michelle Breidenbach. “Refugees in Onondaga County: Where Are They from? When Did They Arrive?”,, 10 Feb. 2017,

Alvarez, Anita. “How Much Do Professional Family Portraits Cost?” Angie's List | Join for FREE to See 10 Million Verified Reviews, 3 Sept. 2015,

Breidenbach, Michelle. “New Refugees Drop 72 Percent in Syracuse Area in Trump's First Year; a 10-Year Low.”,, 23 Jan. 2018,

Bureau of Refugee Services Population Data for FFY 2018. Bureau of Refugee Services, 2018. “Refugee Alliance of Greater Syracuse.” Hopeprint, 2019,

Christian, Miranda. “Nonprofit offers veterans free portraits”, 13 Feb. 2019,

Good Shepherd Community Care. “Quincy nonprofit offers free Thanksgiving family photos for seniors”, 16 Dec. 2016,

Hansel, Mark. “The Kindness Lens provides free family portraits to Northern Kentuckians who can’t afford them”, 27 Nov. 2018,

“Refugee Resettlement Services, Onondaga County.” 211CNY.Com Search for 'Salvation+Army', 2019,

Latif, Anam. “Family Portrait Project Helps Refugees Create New Memories”, 14 Nov. 2018,

Shank, Jenny. “This Generous Photographer Makes Low-Income Families Smile”, 10 Mar. 2014,

“Stability Services.” Catholic Charities of Onondaga County, 3 Jan. 2019,

Vijaya, Ramya M., et al. “Within 7 Years, Refugees Are Self-Sufficient and Contributing to the U.S., on Average.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 15 Aug. 2017,

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Creating Memories For Refugees In Onondaga County. (2020, Mar 31). Retrieved May 29, 2024 , from

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