It’s Personal, Part One; The human connection during a human crisis

This article originally appeared on on May 6, 2016

As the daughter of two generations of refugees, I am well aware that there is always a personal story.

My recent journeys to Jordan and Greece to meet some of the people who have been forced from their homes in the largest wave of migration to sweep Europe since the Second World War reignited my intense interest in hearing their narratives.

When I focus my camera on someone, my mind follows where my eye journeyed. The standard shutter speed of 1/125th of a second activates my curiosity; who is that person, and what is their story? The proliferation of life vests accumulating on the Greek island of Lesbos landfills begs the obvious question; what happened to each person?

In Amman Jordan, I met Siham. She is a lawyer, who fled Syria with two of her three sons, and her daughter. The absent son’s wife and children are with Siham while he tries to make a life for his family in the Netherlands. He traveled through four countries and was one of the 100 survivors in a boat carrying 650 people.

Her youngest son was weeks away from receiving his master’s degree when the regime army took him from their home in Aleppo. After months of no contact, Siham successfully bribed his kidnappers for his return. The next night the family left their home, navigating the constant bombing, eventually reaching Lebanon and then Jordan.

Safa, from Aleppo and now living in Amman with her family, spoke of living in the one back room left of their decimated home in their deserted community. Safa described her fear of going to buy a loaf of bread, as the army would shoot all around her feet to scare her. Her daughter worked in a bank that snipers used for target practice. Within days of quitting, the daughter’s replacement was killed, Safa said. Safa’s 60-year-old husband was in front of their home when the army grabbed him and loaded him on a bus. When he refused to follow his captor’s orders, he was beaten and returned once a ransom was paid.

“My husband is a proud man, he has worked hard all his life,” Safa said. “He was not going to do anything he doesn’t believe in.”

Mohammed, a 21-year-old Syrian, was studying to be a veterinarian. He and his family paid smugglers to bring them to Greece by boat. The photos on his smartphone portray joyous family gatherings and the births of his niece and nephew.

On a frigid night at the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos, Mohammed sang to his friends, other Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan refugees, and a few European and American volunteers. His voice, a bit raspy from a lingering cough, was still strong typifying the sentiment of unity and passion running through the camp that night. While the song was in Arabic, a foreign language to many in the crowd, we all seemed to grasp the meaning, which made us tearful and compelled us to sing and dance.

Asmat, an Afghan in his late 20’s, worked as an interpreter and guide for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. His English was perfect and he translated Farsi for the volunteers in the Moria camp. Because of Turkey’s border closures, Moria had become more of a detention center than its intended registration center. Considered a “contractor,” he was rendered useless by the shrapnel injury in his leg and received neither medical help nor émigré status from the U.S. Labeled a traitor by the Taliban, he cannot return home. Helping the Americans has put his life in limbo and fear.

In the Piraeus parking lot in Athens, now home to thousands of refugees living in tents, Yana, a 6-year-old Syrian, plays on the weathered, splintered wood of a flatbed truck with her sister and other little girls. There is little for them to play with and the few stuffed animals and one Barbie seem to be more important than is usual for little girls. Her constant sniffling cannot be ignored nor can her dirty hands, face, clothing, and shoes that are far too big for her feet. In the waters behind this rusted and treacherous truck sits a luxury cruise liner waiting to go on to its next port of call.

Salam, a beautiful 19-year-old Syrian girl with sparkling eyes and an engaging smile, sits on a blanket inside the Piraeus terminal with her sister, her sister’s baby, Abuzza, and her cousin. Her mother stayed behind in their small Syrian town to tend to their ailing father. Salam explains in her broken English that she was studying to be a doctor because she wanted to help people. As she guides us through the maze of too many families on too many blankets, it seems that she is trying to help everyone.

Ammar, a scared 5-year-old Syrian, is having his last meal with his parents at Damas Restaurant in Mytilene, the port capital of Lesbos, before getting on the ferry to Athens. The flashlight and balloon gifts are momentary distractions. His loving parents struggle to smile for his benefit. On the floor are all their worldly possessions stuffed in to three knapsacks and two duffel bags. Ammar’s mother, Samar, speaks English, and we discuss the lack of U.S. participation in solving the human and moral crisis.

We walk together, in the cold, to the ferry terminal. As we get closer and as we tearfully hug goodbye, a few glaring men standing nearby ask my new family about me. Samar holds my hand a little tighter and clearly states that I share their perspective, which pacifies the men. Ammar and his parents are anxious and hopeful as they join the long line of people waiting outside for the ferry while the heated terminal waiting room remains unoccupied.

It was the perfect metaphor for what is happening globally; people standing in a cold, barren place waiting for the warm welcome of a new and safe community.