There's a fire just beginning to blaze in my soul for the crisis in Syria. Most of you probably know a lot about the situation, probably even more than me, if you've been keeping up on the news. The civil war between government forces, rebel groups, and the Islamic State has left not just thousands but literally millions of people as refugees, fleeing their home and country and risking their lives in the process. I heard statements like that months ago. Honestly, it didn't mean much to me because there are things like this happening all over the world, right? There's always bad news, and it's unfortunate, but it didn't really catch my attention.
But a picture says a thousand words.
For many of us, the image of a Syrian toddler face down in the surf of a European beach was the moment we realized something must be done. I am most grateful to a series done by Humans of New York , a photographer who documents ordinary people in New York, but took two weeks to feature Syrian refugees he met during his time in the Middle East. These faces and stories broke me. They inspired hope, and they crushed me in pain. And now, I'm different, and it's time to do something. I want to meet these people someday, and I want them to know that I shared their story, that I took action.
For the sake of the millions of fellow humans who are living through this hell right now, please read these stories. Information on how to help at the bottom of the page.
Photos and stories from Humans of New York. Some content may not be suitable for children.
“Before leaving for Europe, I went back to Syria to see my family once more. I slept in my uncle’s barn the entire time I was there, because every day the police were knocking on my father’s door. Eventually my father told me: ‘If you stay any longer, they will find you and they will kill you.’ So I contacted a smuggler and made my way to Istanbul. I was just about to leave for Europe when I received a call from my sister. She told me that my father had been very badly beaten by police, and unless I sent 5,000 Euro for an operation, he would die. That was my money to get to Europe. But what could I do? I had no choice. Then two weeks later she called with even worse news. My brother had been killed by ISIS while he was working in an oil field. They found our address on his ID card, and they sent his head to our house, with a message: ‘Kurdish people aren’t Muslims.’ My youngest sister found my brother’s head. This was one year ago. She has not spoken a single word since.” (Kos, Greece)
“My husband and I sold everything we had to afford the journey. We worked 15 hours a day in Turkey until we had enough money to leave. The smuggler put 152 of us on a boat. Once we saw the boat, many of us wanted to go back, but he told us that anyone who turned back would not get a refund. We had no choice. Both the lower compartment and the deck were filled with people. Waves began to come into the boat so the captain told everyone to throw their baggage into the sea. In the ocean we hit a rock, but the captain told us not to worry. Water began to come into the boat, but again he told us not to worry. We were in the lower compartment and it began to fill with water. It was too tight to move. Everyone began to scream. We were the last ones to get out alive. My husband pulled me out of the window. In the ocean, he took off his life jacket and gave it to a woman. We swam for as long as possible. After several hours he told me he that he was too tired to swim and that he was going to float on his back and rest. It was so dark we could not see. The waves were high. I could hear him calling me but he got further and further away. Eventually a boat found me. They never found my husband.” (Kos, Greece)
“I wish I could have done more for her. Her life has been nothing but struggle. She hasn’t known many happy moments. She never had a chance to taste childhood. When we were getting on the plastic boat, I heard her say something that broke my heart. She saw her mother being crushed by the crowd, and she screamed: ‘Please don’t kill my mother! Kill me instead!’“ (Lesvos, Greece)
The extent to which refugee children have been conditioned by their environment is heartbreaking. We wanted permission to take this young girl’s photograph, so we asked if her mother was nearby. Her eyes filled with the most uncontrollable fear that I’ve ever seen in a child. ‘Why do you want my mother?’ she asked. Later, her parents told us how the family had crouched in the woods while soldiers ransacked their house in Syria. More recently they’d been chased through the woods by Turkish police. After we’d spent a few minutes talking with her parents, she returned to being a child and could not stop hugging us, and laughing, and saying ‘I love you so much.’ But I went to sleep that night remembering the terror on her face when we first asked to speak to her mother. (Lesvos, Greece)
“When I joined the Syrian army, there was no war yet. I just wanted to serve my country. But now everyone is forced to do horrible things. One time we were marching and a single bullet came from a village. Our commander told us to go into each house, one by one, and kill everyone inside. The village was a Sunni village, so our commander ordered all the Sunni soldiers to lead the attack. Anyone who disobeyed would be killed themselves. We did our best to aim over the heads of the people who were running away, but forty people were killed. A few nights later I fled in the middle of the night.” (Lesvos, Greece)
“I saw the army burn my neighbor’s house. They set it on fire and took photographs while it burned. The next day I saw the same house on TV, except the headline claimed that it had been destroyed by ‘terrorists.’ The army began to arrest 300 people every day. They were arresting everyone. They came for me during Ramadan. I was eating with my entire family when suddenly we heard the sound of a car outside. Soldiers kicked down the door and they tied my hands behind my back. My children were screaming. The soldiers said: ‘We know you are working with the opposition! You are a terrorist!’ I told them: ‘Please. We are poor people. We have done nothing. We are trying to live.’ I never thought I’d see my family again. They brought me to the prison and blindfolded me. They made me kneel on the floor. They asked me questions about the opposition, but I knew nothing. When they asked me a question, I only had two seconds to answer before I was kicked. They beat me for hours while they questioned me. I begged them to stop. I kept promising that I would tell them if I heard anything. Then they attached cables to my body. They would run electricity through me for 25 seconds, then they would stop, and they would ask another question. When I said: ‘I don’t know,’ the electricity would start again. They kept me for three days. When they finally let me go, I couldn’t stand. I went home and hugged my family but I had to go straight to work. Because there was no food in the house and no one had eaten for days.” (Lesvos, Greece)
Thanks to everyone for following along these last two weeks as we learned the stories of refugees migrating across Europe. I hope that you’ve learned along with me that each refugee carries a tragically unique story often filled with violence and fear. Many of you have asked about the best way to help. There are plenty of wonderful NGOs working to assist refugees, but you cannot go wrong supporting the UNHCR. Money donated to the UNHCR goes directly to providing food, water, and shelter to desperate people. The UNHCR is on the ground all over the world, often in dangerous and difficult places, providing essentials to people who have no government or state to protect them. This is why the UNHCR has won two Nobel Peace Prizes. Currently the resources of the UNHCR are stretched to the limit, and sometimes the organization is only able to make a tissue thin difference. But often it is the difference between life and death.Quite wonderfully and coincidentally, Kickstarter launched a campaign this morning to support the UNHCR. It’s the very first charity campaign that Kickstarter has ever done. I encourage anyone wishing to make a difference in the refugee crisis to donate there: https://www.kickstarter.com/aidrefugees