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Humans Of New York Covers The Refugee Crisis Through Its Lens

Written by Sheeba Manish

The BBC reports that more than 500,000 migrants have arrived on European shores by March 2015. Unofficial numbers peg it at many more.

map of refugees

Behind these large numbers are entire families who have lost everything they have built over a lifetime. Families have sped with whatever little they in dinghy boats in the middle of the night.

Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York has in the past month been putting up heartbreaking stories of people who find themselves ‘refugees’ seeking asylum overnight.

Here are two:

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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 twenty 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. Every day the army knocked on our door, and said: ‘Help us or we will kill you.’ They came to the restaurant where I worked and accused us of feeding the enemy. We hid in the cellar while they beat the manager. If the opposition managed to capture our village, we would also be killed. They would accuse us of collaborating with the army. We had no options. Minding our own business was not a choice. We left with nothing but our clothes.” (Lesvos, Greece)

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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).

Unfortunately, the refugee crisis is not new at all. The displacement of humans is not a new story. In 1939, W.H.Auden in his poem ‘Refugee Blues’ captured so poignantly the plight of refugees everywhere and through time. He was writing about German Jews who were fleeing Hitler’s armies. This powerful poem, written in the Blues style gives us an insight what it probably means to lose home and hearth, familiar turns and neighbours who know us. The unfamiliarity of new spaces, the pain of having to start all over again, the disparity and the unwelcomeness of an unwanted guest in a new country.

Refugee Blues

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew:
Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.

The consul banged the table and said,
“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”:
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”:
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying, “They must die”:
O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

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Syrian refugees in an UNCHR camp. Image credit: Daily Beast

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