Humans of New York: Refugee stories

by Kelly Ledbetter, |
A migrant man holds a baby inside a refugee camp as refugees and migrants wait to cross Greece's border with Macedonia near the Greek village of Idomeni, October 27, 2015. According to United Nations over half a million refugees and migrants have arrived by sea in Greece this year and the rate of arrivals is rising, in a rush to beat the onset of freezing winter. | REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis

NEW YORK (Christian Examiner) – Brandon Stanton, the photographer famous for his "Humans of New York" photographic series and books, traveled to Europe in Oct. to document the faces and stories of refugees fleeing ISIS. Their stories will shock you.

One young woman, who is pictured with her hand covering her face while she cries, tells about her treacherous ocean crossing. She and her husband sold all they owned for the price of the passage on the lower compartment of a ship filled with 152 people. Then the ship hit a rock.

"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."

But even though she arrived in Kos, Greece, her husband did not make it. "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."


A man whose feet were photographed in sandals lived in an ISIS-occupied city for five months. "I tried to avoid trouble," he said, "but one of my neighbors reported me for shaving my beard."

ISIS came to his house in the middle of the night and dragged him to the city center with five others, where they whipped him. "'These men are atheists,' they said. 'And they will be punished.' They took off my shirt and put a blindfold on me. They said that anyone who tried to go to the hospital afterward would be killed."

Now a refugee in Salzburg, Austria, the man described the agony of the lashes: "I was the fifth one to be whipped. I could hear the men before me scream out in strange voices. When the first lash hit me, the pain was so bad that it felt like my soul left my body. They lashed me twelve times. I lost consciousness before it ended and woke up in bed."

Kindness to people who have lost everything is a ministry with a real impact.

One middle-aged couple pictured kneeling in the grass with their few belongings said they had good experiences with people welcoming them. A priest even gave them a carpet for prayer. They have been touched by the charity of others.


Stanton writes about the degree to which refugee children have been affected by the violence. He calls their experiences "heartbreaking."

One little girl wearing a t-shirt and a pink watch is photographed in a close-up, but she is gazing to the side of the camera.

Wanting permission to take her photograph, Stanton asked her where her mother was. "Her eyes filled with the most uncontrollable fear that I've ever seen in a child. 'Why do you want my mother?' she asked."

She was afraid Stanton was going to hurt her or her mother or separate them from each other. "Later," he wrote, "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. ... But I went to sleep that night remembering the terror on her face when we first asked to speak to her mother."

Stanton also chronicles the stories of UNHCR workers, including a young woman with a desk job who, knowing a little bit of Farsi, takes pleasure in greeting refugees in their own language and a man who quit his job as a civil engineer to join UNHCR as an engineer to build relief camps in disasters and crises.


Even Stanton's interpreter, Muhammad, with whom he had worked the previous year and now reconnected in Austria, had a heart-wrenching story of his journey to safety.

After working at a hotel for 12 hours a day with one day off per month, Muhammad saved 13,000 Euros to move to Europe. But then he learned that his father had been beaten by police and needed emergency surgery. "That was my money to get to Europe. But what could I do? I had no choice," Muhammad said.

Two weeks later, he received worse news that ISIS had killed his brother while he was working and sent his head to their home with a message that said, "Kurdish people aren't Muslims." Muhammad said, "My youngest sister found my brother's head. This was one year ago. She has not spoken a single word since."

Muhammad was devastated. "For two weeks my tears didn't stop. Nothing made sense. Why did these things happen to my family? We did everything right. Everything. We were very honest with everyone. We treated our neighbors well. We made no big mistakes. I was under so much pressure at this time. My father was in intensive care, and every day my sisters called and told me that ISIS was getting closer to our village."

Desperate to get to Europe, Muhammad contacted a smuggler who put him in a van, then a boat, stealing his money and tricking him and others. The faulty boat barely crossed the dangerous sea.

"I don't remember how we reached shore," Muhammad said. "But I remember I kissed all the earth I could find. I hate the sea now. I hate it so much. I don't like to swim it. I don't like to look at it. I hate everything about it."

After landing, Muhammad and the other refugees were arrested and put into prison where they were not given any food or water. He was force-marched for twelve days until an Albanian policeman took him in and cared for him for a week before he could move on.

"After one month, I arrived in Austria," Muhammad said. "The first day I was there, I walked into a bakery and met a man named Fritz Hummel. He told me that forty years ago he had visited Syria and he'd been treated well. So he gave me clothes, food, everything. He became like a father to me."

Muhammad, formerly a student of English literature, studied the German language ceaselessly. "After seven months, it was time to meet with a judge to determine my status. I could speak so well at this point, that I asked the judge if we could conduct the interview in German. He couldn't believe it. He was so impressed that I'd already learned German, that he interviewed me for only ten minutes. Then he pointed at my Syrian ID card and said: 'Muhammad, you will never need this again. You are now an Austrian!'"

Stanton ended his series on refugees thanking everyone who helped share the stories. "I hope that you've learned along with me that each refugee carries a tragically unique story often filled with violence and fear."

Stanton encourages people to support the UNHCR in aid of the refugees. "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."