“All I want now is to find a place where my family can be safe, and stay there forever.” A white-bearded man, face lined with age and strife, holds up a walking staff as he peers out of the black-and-white photo from 2012. At 70 years old, Ahmed was living in a refugee camp in Kurdistan, Iraq after losing his wife and nine children to bombings in Damascus. Ahmed’s face and story helped weave a small patchwork of refugee experiences shared yesterday at the United Nations headquarters in New York City at the opening of the multimedia art exhibition “Refugees.”
On June 20, people around the world took note of #WorldRefugeeDay. But for the 65.3 million people who became refugees this past year, many whom are now languishing in camps in Greece, Turkey, and elsewhere, a day and a hashtag are just points in a line without end.
Taking a hopeful turn, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon remarked in his speech at the event: “This is a crisis of solidarity, not a crisis of numbers.” But his comments also underscored the stark superlative just reported by the UN: the number of refugees today surpasses that which followed World War II.
To give a small sense of the individual lives that comprise this tidal wave of forced migration, “Refugees” showed portraits of displaced, stateless, and migrant people around the world, shot by American photographer Brian Sokol and Swedish photographer Magnus Wennman. A virtual reality experience, Clouds over Sidra, provided VR goggles and a headset to transport the wearer to a refugee camp in Jordan and let him or her “walk” a mile in refugees’ shoes.
In Wennman’s series “Where the Children Sleep,” 7-year-old Shehd sleeps on the ground, the accompanying caption describing how the girl who once loved to draw colorful pictures now only sketches weapons. Stuck on the Serbian-Hungarian border, the family said that if they knew their journey to safety would be so arduous, they would have stayed in Syria and risked their lives. One Sudanese refugee depicted in Sokol’s series “The Most Important Thing,” a 22-year-old mother of six, her husband taken by the fighting, describes walking for three weeks to South Sudan carrying a pole with baskets affixed to either side—at times bearing two children in each when they were too fatigued to continue.
AWT contributor Alana Chloe Esposito, who reported an in-depth story about Syrian refugee Thair Orfahli in the Rejection issue, just returned to New York after spending six weeks meeting people in Greek refugee camps. She visited the outdoor tent city at the port of Piraeus, the indoor/outdoor camp at the abandoned Elliniko Airport, and the sprawling encampment at Idomeni—all unofficial camps where thousands idle in an unsustainable holding pattern. (The Idomeni camp was evacuated during Alana’s stay, its thousands of residents sent to a state camp. Her friends and contacts told her the conditions there were even worse, at least in the first few days: not enough water for drinking or showering, not enough food, not enough formula, not enough toilets.)
Walking around the camps and speaking to mostly Afghan and Syrian refugees through a combination of broken English and translators, Alana says she never felt unsafe. Though violence between Afghans and Syrians does break out in the camps (particularly due to the not-unfounded view that Syrian refugees are the focus of smaller NGOs), she saw Afghans and Syrians living side-by-side as tent neighbors and friends.
At this point, there is a shaky infrastructure in place in the camps; despite the dangers, squalid conditions, and the trauma of displacement, life goes on. “Refugees were hawking cigarettes, setting up barbershops and giving each other haircuts, selling all kinds of things,” Alana recalls. “One guy was a professional artist in Syria and he started making sculptures out of border fence and selling them very cheaply.” Families with something small to spare bought these knickknacks to entertain their kids, having abandoned toys in homes that are no more.
But it is precisely this quasi-permanent state that strikes at the desperate heart of the refugee crisis. One of the most striking things she observed time and time again in her acquaintances, Alana says, was denial. “It shocked me how these rumors [of borders opening] were spreading like wildfire,” she says.
She asked one of the women she met why people believed these unfounded rumors—that relief was coming, that Europe would open its arms to them in the next few weeks—regardless of their level of literacy, education, or Internet access. The refugee’s response? “What else are we going to do?”
Addressing a crowd here in New York, far removed from the crisis shaking the Middle East and Europe, Secretary General Ban alluded to this terrible limbo: “It is the waiting that is killing everyone.”
“Refugees” is organized by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in collaboration with the UN SDG [Sustainable Development Goals] Action Campaign, and the Department of Public Information. It is open to the public in the Visitors’ Lobby of the United Nations Headquarters until September 8.
Photo credit: Hilary Duffy