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Legally blind photographer Hani Al Moulia brings refugee crisis into focus

Hani Al Moulia has goals beyond photography: He plans to study computer engineering at universtiy.

When Hani Al Moulia takes centre stage at this year's We Day events across the country, the story he'll share with his young audiences will be one of survival, creative blossoming and achievement in the face of war and disability.

"I've been through many challenges, but at every new challenge or stage I told myself: It's not impossible – you can do it," says Mr. Al Moulia, who arrived in Canada with his family last year as one of the 600 Syrian refugees sponsored by the federal government. "When you lose something, you should work harder and not surrender."

Four years ago when he was 17, Mr. Al Moulia fled the war-torn Syrian city of Homs and lived in a refugee camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, where he was soon joined by his parents and six siblings. It was at Bekaa, during a two-week workshop organized by the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, that Mr. Al Moulia learned the skills that turned him into a photographer – one who captured poignantly beautiful pictures of daily life in the refugee camp.

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But Mr. Al Moulia can't actually see the images he shoots; he has a genetic eye condition, called nystagmus, that makes him legally blind.

"The regular person sees 20 feet over 20, I see 200 feet over 20," explains Mr. Al Moulia. "I can't really see all the colours – I don't see yellow, blue or red – and my eyes shake like a beating heart. There's nothing I can do to stop it."

Mr. Al Moulia's condition prevents him from seeing anything through a camera's viewfinder. To shoot his photographs, he relies on his knowledge of how his camera works – for instance, he's memorized exposure settings – and carefully measures distances between him and his subjects.

"This makes my photography style very unique," he says.

Mr. Al Moulia's story as a newcomer to Canada is also unique. Just a few weeks after he arrived in Canada, he was invited to display his photographs at a gala hosted by the Toronto-based Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). Exhibits at this annual gala are usually reserved for high-profile photojournalists, but the CJFE made an exception for Mr. Al Moulia.

This year, Mr. Al Moulia won a scholarship from Toronto's Ryerson University, where he plans to study computer engineering. He also earned a seat on the Prime Minister's Youth Council, a group of select 16- to 24-year-olds who will advise Justin Trudeau on issues ranging from employment and education to climate change and clean energy.

"That's a big step in my life," says Mr. Al Moulia. "I'm considered a Canadian."

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Dalal Al-Waheidi, executive director of We Day Global, says Mr. Al Moulia has much to share with today's young Canadians.

"This year, we are celebrating Canada's 150th birthday and wanted to look at We Day from a local, national and global level," she says. "Hani's story reflects the idea of inclusion and diversity on a global level – here is a newcomer from a war-torn country who has been able to accomplish so much not only because he's an amazing human being but also because Canadian society provides newcomers with the tools they need to succeed."

Canadians have certainly received Mr. Al Moulia with wide open arms – and plenty of offers to help him succeed in his new country. Last year, the president of the University of Regina raised money from anonymous donors so Mr. Al Moulia could attend English-language classes at its school of continuing studies.

At the CJFE gala where Mr. Al Moulia's photos were exhibited last year, a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University, James L. Turk, learned about Mr. Al Moulia's desire to go to university to study computer engineering while pursuing his interest in photojournalism. He introduced Mr. Al Moulia to Ryerson's president, who arranged a scholarship for the young man after he got accepted into the school's engineering program.

"I believe there's an obligation for educators to try and recognize the abilities of our students and ensure they have the possibility to fulfill their potential," says Dr. Turk. "When I met Hani, I saw a young man with great talent and intelligence, and a deep love for his family."

Dr. Turk describes Mr. Al Moulia as "one of the most upbeat young men I've ever met in my life – life in a refugee camp is quite harsh, yet after three years in a camp, Hani never lost his enthusiasm for life and his drive to succeed."

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Ms. Al-Waheidi at We Day Global agrees. She can't wait to meet Mr. Al Moulia and to hear him speak at this year's We Day events.

"We want to raise awareness of refugees in terms of inclusion and ability, and to inspire young people to believe that nothing is impossible," she says. "Hani's story is such a beautiful example of this."

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