Brandon Stanton has met thousands of individuals though his work as a street photographer and storyteller. They are grandparents, immigrants, divorcees, actors. By telling “one story at a time,” his Humans of New York blog and Facebook page reach millions of people every day.
Moved by the refugee crisis in Europe, Brandon partnered with us recently to interview and photograph some of the many people arriving in Greece, Croatia, Hungary and Austria.
On the beaches of Lesvos and Kos, in Greece, he met sisters, wives, husbands, uncles – similar in many respects to the people he meets each day in New York City. But these Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans told him how they fled war back home, and what they needed to do during their flight to safety.
Here is a selection of the stories Brandon heard from refugees searching for peace, and from the volunteers and aid workers helping them.
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 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. © UNHCR / Brandon Stanton
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 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.” © UNHCR / Brandon Stanton
Kos, Greece “My father was a farmer and I had eight siblings. I went to Australia when I was 15 because my family didn’t have enough to eat. I was on a boat for 40 days. When I got there, I couldn’t find a job, I couldn’t speak English, and I had to sleep on the street. I know what it’s like. So every day I drive the van to the port and hand out bread to the refugees. My son is my business partner. He says, ‘Baba, please. It’s fine to help. But not every day.’ But I still go every day because I know what it feels like to have nothing.” © UNHCR / Brandon Stanton
Lesvos, 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!’ ” © UNHCR / Brandon Stanton
Lesvos, Greece “Everyone here has been very nice to us. When we got to the beach, there were people there who gave us food and a hug. A priest even gave us this carpet to pray on. He told us: ‘We have the same God.’ ” © UNHCR / Brandon Stanton
Lesvos, Greece “In the past four months alone, we’ve had 12,000 refugees stop here. We know because we’ve counted the sandwiches that we’ve handed out. They show up battered and beaten. We set up this rest area along the road to hand out sandwiches, juice and water. One night we had 1,000 people here. You could see nothing but heads. We’re not professionals, just volunteers. The families break our heart the most. They show up with no money, no papers, and no hotels. Sometimes it’s raining and they have nothing but cardboard over their heads. They have nothing for their children, and we know how hard it is to raise kids even in standard conditions. Our son hasn’t seen very much of us recently. Even when we are together, the phone is always ringing and we are absent in mind. Recently he asked if we could build a big boat and send the refugees somewhere that there is no war.” © UNHCR / Brandon Stanton
Lesvos, Greece “I worked as a waiter in Saudi Arabia for seven years to save money so that I could build a house in Syria. It only had two rooms and a bathroom, but for me it was paradise. We lived there for about 20 years. We did not want to leave. We have young children and no money to travel. But it became impossible to live. Our house was situated between the army and the opposition… We had no options. Minding our own business was not a choice. We left with nothing but our clothes.” © UNHCR / Brandon Stanton
Lesvos, Greece “I used to work as a civil engineer in Nepal. I worked on government projects: bridges, roads, things like that. But I was sitting in my office one day in 2004, watching television coverage of the tsunami that hit Indonesia, and I realized that government work was not the best use of my abilities. So I joined the UN and helped build 380 schools in Indonesia. Then when the earthquake hit Haiti, I moved there and began building shelters. Any engineer could do this work. But there just weren’t many available. So all I did was make myself available. Now I’m working with UNHCR to construct camps for refugees. The first priorities are basics: shelter, health, food, water, and toilet access. My next priority is to respect the dignity of the refugees. When they arrive, they are very anxious, so I want to make sure they feel like they have a place. We leave four meters of space between every tent. We also leave the camp open so they can enter and leave whenever they like. And I added this cover over the entry way, because I wanted to be sure they were shaded the moment they walk in.” © UNHCR / Brandon Stanton
Tovarnik, Croatia “I work at UNHCR, but I have a quite junior position. I have a desk job where I reach out to job candidates and try to get them to consider UNHCR. But whenever there’s an emergency, anyone who has a useful skill is sent to the field. This is my first emergency mission. My father is Iranian so I speak a little bit of Farsi. I didn’t realize how useful that could be. Yesterday I was helping an Afghan woman carry her child across the Serbian border, and I was explaining to her what she could expect when we arrived. She was so comforted by the little information I could offer. I’ve seen so many faces light up just because they heard “Welcome to Croatia” in their mother tongue. I’m thankful for my desk job, but this is why I joined UNHCR.” © UNHCR / Brandon Stanton
Vienna, Austria “I studied to be a teacher, but I’m young, so I knew I’d be forced to fight. I don’t like fighting. I don’t like blood. But I was the only one working so I couldn’t leave or my family would go hungry. But my mother begged me to leave. She kissed my feet. She said she wouldn’t mind starving if she knew that I was safe. I hired a smuggler but he took all my money and left me at the border. He told me that he’d call me when the passage was safe, but then he turned off his phone. I was all alone and stuck without money. I called my mother and she said that she’d pray for God to send someone to help me. Then I met this man. I told him my story and he loaned me the money I needed to get to Europe. He treated me like one of his family. I’ll pay him back, but until then I’m trying to return the favour by helping him carry his children.” © UNHCR / Brandon Stanton
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 UNHCR. Money donated to UNHCR goes directly to providing food, water, and shelter to desperate people. 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 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. –Brandon Stanton © UNHCR / Brandon Stanton