Poignant ‘Humans of New York’ Portraits Document the Heartbreaking Stories of Refugees


For the past few months, we’ve seen heartbreaking coverage of what is reportedly the worst refugee crisis since WWII, as hundreds of thousands of terrified and weary people flee their homes in North Africa and the Middle East in the hopes of finding a better life in Europe. Now, Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York adds his voice to the mix with his poignant portraits and stories of some of the 160,000 migrants who have arrived in Greece.

“For the next several days, I’m going to be sharing stories from refugees who are currently making their way across Europe. Additionally, I’ll be spotlighting some of the people who are attempting to help facilitate their immigration and asylum,” Stanton shared on September 25. Together, these migrants are part of one of the largest population movements in modern history. But their stories are composed of unique and singular tragedies. In the midst of the current ‘migrant crisis,’ there are millions of different reasons for leaving home. And there are millions of different hardships that refugees face as they search for a new home.”

The stories, although vastly different, all tell a tale of perseverance and survival in the face of extreme hardship. One woman lost her husband to the cold depths of the sea as they fled to Greece; a young boy watched his worst fear come to life as four of his friends were killed by a rocket in front of him; one man and his grief-stricken family lost his brother to the brutality of ISIS. And yet, even amidst all this pain and strife, striking chords of humanity rang through—sacrificing one’s life to save another; empathy to the highest degree; the generosity of a baker who feeds refugees every day.

”Since the situation is constantly shifting, I'm still not sure of all my destinations,” Stanton wrote. “But over the next ten days or so, I hope to share as many of these stories as I can find.”

Above: “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)

hony2For context on the upcoming stories, it is important to understand the ‘plastic boat.’ The plastic boat is a central figure in the story of almost every refugee coming to Europe via Turkey. Every day, thousands of people arrive to the Greek islands on these boats. They represent one of the only ways that refugees can bypass immigration restrictions and throw themselves at the feet of Europe. The journey is extremely dangerous and many have drowned in the past few months. Despite paying Turkish smugglers $1,500 per person, the refugees are loaded into boats that are filled to many times their capacity. The boats usually leave at night to avoid detection. Often the refugees arrive carrying nothing but horror stories. Unfortunately there is little waiting for them on the other side. If they are lucky, a handful of volunteers will meet them on the beach with a bottle of water. In Lesvos, where this photo was taken, the refugees will then begin a 50-mile walk to the port where they can register. The UNHCR and several NGOs are scrambling to provide bare necessities, but their resources are stretched to capacity. They can offer little beyond a guarantee of survival. The initial elation of the refugees at having reached Europe will quickly subside as many realize they cannot even afford the price of a ferry to get off the island.

“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 Euros 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)

“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)

“There is no security in Baghdad. We lived in constant fear. We started receiving text messages one day. They said: ‘Give us money, or we will burn down your house. If you tell the police, we will kill you.’ We had nobody to turn to. We are poor people. We have no powerful friends. We don’t know anyone in the government. The text messages continued every day. We were so afraid that we could not sleep. We had no money to give them. We could barely afford to feed ourselves. So we said to ourselves: ‘Maybe they are lying. Maybe they will do nothing.’ Then one night we woke up and our house was on fire. We barely escaped with the children. The next day we received a text message. It said: ‘Give us money, or this time you will die.’ I replied that we’d pay them soon. We sold everything we owned, and we left. We thought we'd rather die in a plastic boat than die there.” (Lesvos, Greece)

“They fired rockets from a mountain near our house. They were very loud, and every time he heard them, he’d run into his room and close the door. We’d tell him fake stories. We’d tell him that there was nothing to worry about, and that the rockets were far away and they would never reach us. Then one day after school he was waiting in a line of school buses. And a rocket hit the bus in front of him. Four of his friends were killed.” (Kos, Greece)

“My father was a farmer and we had eight siblings. I went to Australia when I was fifteen because my family didn’t have enough to eat. I was on a boat for forty 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 everyday 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.” (Kos, Greece)

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