Movement and Survival: Challenging the Way We Tell Refugee Stories

On World Refugee Day we ask the creators of @EverydayMigration and several photographers about their work covering human movement around the globe.

A ‘graveyard’ of life jackets on the Greek island of Lesbos. The life jackets were worn by refugees crossing the Aegean Sea. Many jackets are fake, or made of material that soaks up water rather than those that would help keep a person afloat. Photo by Danielle Villasana, @davillasana

Last year photographers Katja Heinemann and Ramin Talaie were frustrated with international media coverage of the 2015 refugee exodus. Katja wondered how global displacement became a “story” only once people were finding their way to Europe in large numbers.

“There were largely two types of images, and little in between: Masses of people and moments of heightened emotional drama,” Katja says.

She believes immigrants are forcing people to interact with the effects of geopolitical and economic policy decisions.

“Sometimes the result of these interactions is a forging of new communities,” Katja says. “And sometimes, much too often, it leads to exclusion, discrimination, stigmatization, and structural and physical violence aimed at keeping people out. Meanwhile, we are sorting through this in a shared global conversation, via media.”

Katja says social media platforms that focus on creativity, as opposed to yelling at one another, are an ideal way to drive better conversations. So, as a way to deepen understanding about migration, she and Ramin started @EverydayMigration last fall.

“I am less interested in issues we know little about, and much more in topics that we gloss over, that we feel we have figured out as a group or a society,” Katja says. “And then to find the little hook, the personal anecdote, the visual juxtaposition that makes people stop and re-think.”

A few months ago Everyday Migration published the work of Afghan photographer Mujtaba Jalali. Mujtaba documented his own journey from Tehran to Europe. His pictures don’t only show refugees disembarking from rafts in Greece but also launch preparations on the shores of Turkey and the ground strewn with the plastic pumps used to inflate them.

There is great power and perspective in refugees telling their own stories. In the Golshahr neighborhood of Mashhad, Iran, second-generation Afghan refugees started @EverydayGolshahr to depict their daily lives.

In addition to the nearly 1 million registered Afghans in Iran, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates another 1.5 million to 2 million may live there unregistered. While Iran allows Afghans to register for ID cards, there is no clear path to citizenship, much like the situation Syrians encounter in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Left to right, from top: 1) Self-regulatory schools are established and run by Afghan refugees in Iran. Such schools help Afghan children continue their education. High cost and limitations of governmental schools as well as lack of valid IDs for transportation prevent Afghan refugees from entering the formal education system. Photo by Reza Heidari Shahbida, @shahbidak; Selected by Mostafa Mazari, @mostafa_mazari 2) A woman in Golshahr. Photo by @zahra.nateqi_98; Selected by Reza Heidari Shahbidak, @shahbidak 3) Jomeh Bazar is one of the busiest markets in Mashhad , attracting people from all over the city. Photo by Mohsen Meghdari, @mohsenmeghdari; Selected by @smaiel_khavari 4) Every year people from all over the world purchase rings in Golshahr. Photo by Reza Heidari Shahbida, @shahbidak; Selected by @jamalsajjadi

The lead curator of Everyday Golshahr, Reza Heidari Shahbidak, fled the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan with his parents in 1982, just a year after he was born.

“I believe if there were no war in the world, immigration and choosing the land on which you want to live would be very beautiful,” Reza says. “But, unfortunately, most immigration happens due to lack of safety and fear of death, and it makes the experience nasty. Now with the selfishness of governments around the world, it seems impossible that people can reach real calmness. Selfishness is like a cancerous tumor, and if it isn’t cured, it will spread throughout the world.”

The international media prominently features news on efforts to impose U.S. travel bans and terrorist attacks in Europe. These stories are critical, but so too are the stories of those who lack resources and documents to travel safely and legally and who are subject to violence on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis.

“The majority of the world’s refugees are not, in fact, storming European shores,” Katja says. “They are hosted by neighboring countries in the region of their displacement.”

Western reaction to the recent wave of migration has dominated the news, but most of the world’s refugees live in Africa and the Middle East. Iran is officially the fourth largest host of refugees in the world, after Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon. It is also a source country of refugees seeking asylum.

Left to right, from top: 1) Reunited after 27 months, Ali welcomes his wife, Marwa at Schonefeld Airport in Berlin, Germany. 2) Lola changes in his newly adopted home in Canada. In 2013, Lola lived in Iran and identified as gay. Later he fled Iran to seek asylum in Turkey, where he started exploring his sexuality and now, three years later, he calls Vancouver home and identifies as transsexual. 3) Amani Kaskin, 32, and her husband, Maher ,24, both from Damascus, fled Syria together while they were still friends. Maher proposed to Amani, despite the unusual age gap, and the couple married in Istanbul on their way to Europe. Baby Kareem, 4 months old in this picture, was born in a communal settlement called Refugio. Photos by Kiana Hayeri, @kianahayeri

Iranian-Canadian Kiana Hayeri has photographed refugees from Iran, Afghanistan and Syria settling in places such as Canada, America, Europe, Turkey and Iran. Not long ago, Kiana was photographing a Syrian woman in Germany. When a German man asked the woman why she was living in “his country,” the 19-year-old cited the poem “Home” by Warsan Shire.

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”

“This verse continues to echo in my ears every time I meet someone else who was forced to flee ‘home’,” Kiana says. “Some are still in camps and others have moved on and restarted life in their new adopted homes. They eat different foods, dress differently, follow different religions and traditions and each have a different reason for leaving home. But they have some things in common. They are all resilient and hopeful.”

A man throws his daughter into the air inside a Syrian refugee camp in southern Turkey. Photo by Tara Todras-Whitehill, @taratwphoto

Resilience and hope keep people going, as do thoughts of the next generation. Istanbul-based photographer Tara Todras-Whitehill has told immigration stories in Turkey, Jordan, Greece, Lebanon, Iraq and Serbia. What strikes her most is the determination Syrians have to continue their children’s education.

“Their lives might have been in danger for a while in Syria, but the last straw was when their children’s education truly suffered,” Tara says. “And I always was surprised and impressed by that answer. I feel like if it was me, I’d have said security issues or lack of basic services that would make me want to flee, but most of the Syrian refugees I have talked with, hands down, education for their kids was the top reason for leaving.”

Left to right, from top: 1) Children play with balloons on the main street of Puerto Nuevo, Ecuador. 2) Decorations on the walls of the Baldeón family in their house in Puerto Nuevo, Ecuador. This family was forced to flee their home in Colombia due to health problems caused by aerial fumigations performed by the Colombian government with the chemical glyphosate. The fumigation were used in order to combat marihuana and coca plantations owned or sponsored by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla. People living in the border argue that these fumigations killed all their crops and affected their health. 3) Children play in front of a mural that depicts the Spanish language differences between Ecuador and Colombia. The mural is painted on the wall of the only school in the town. 4) Colombian teenagers cross the San Miguel River to Ecuador. This is the natural border between Ecuador and Colombia. The other side of the river is FARC territory. Photos by Misha Vallejo, @mishavallejo

Halfway across the world, Colombians can relate. In 2014, Ecuadorian Misha Vallejo documented Puerto Nuevo, Ecuador — a town founded in 2001 by displaced Colombians fleeing armed conflict. The work culminated in his award-winning book Al Otro Lado, which translates as “On the Other Side.”

Ecuador is host to the largest number of refugees in Latin America. Most of them are Colombian. Thanks to agreements between Andean countries, Misha says Colombians in Ecuador have access to education and healthcare but discrimination is widespread and finding employment is an enormous challenge.

“I want the world to know that no one chooses to be born in a conflict zone and to leave absolutely everything in order to save their lives and find a future for their children,” Misha says. “Refugees are brave people that challenge fate everyday.”

A group of Somali ladies who were born and raised in Dadaab refugee camp, one of the world’s largest refugee camp created more than 20 years ago in Kenya. Photo by Matilde Gattoni, @matildegattoni

Parents may be motivated to give their children better lives but, even after crossing borders, sometimes they never make it beyond a camp. In 2011 French-Italian photographer Matilde Gattoni photographed Somalian women who were born and raised in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. The camp was constructed in the early ‘90s for Somalians fleeing civil war.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Matilde’s maternal grandfather escaped Francoist Spain and took refuge in France. His daughters were later raised under Nazi-occupied France, where bombs were regularly dropped during World War II.

“Our land is an essential part of who we are,” says Matilde. “I am the first generation of my family who did not grow up in a war zone. Anyone can become a refugee at any time in their life.”

“This photo from 1979 shows three important women in my life: my Vietnamese grandmother, my mother (holding me as a newborn) and my Swiss grandmother. More than anything, what is clear to me is that my diverse background and experiences have fueled my insatiable curiosity for different cultures. It also has afforded me the ability to comfortably straddle different worlds and connect with people from all walks of life. This is what truly defines me, both as a journalist and a multicultural American.” Archive photo from Valerie Plesch, @valerieplesch

American Valerie Plesch is a descendent of Vietnamese refugees. Last fall she photographed refugees in Greece. As she thinks about the future generations of these families, she reflects on her own family history.

“Though my grandparents led a privileged life in Vietnam, they had to leave everything behind in Vietnam and started from zero as soon as they landed in the U.S. It didn’t take long for them and their children to integrate and begin their new and successful lives in America. As a first generation American, I feel so fortunate that I had my grandparents close by. It was perhaps the strongest link I had to my Vietnamese roots and heritage while growing up in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.”

Matilde and Valerie remind us that human migration is not a recent phenomenon. But in a more connected and global world, both the volume and speed of the conversation are increasing. Who is a refugee? And who has the authority to decide that? An individual fearing for their life? A government who will grant residency or deportation orders?

From top left: 1) Refugees stranded in Idomeni, Greece, after the Greek/Macedonian border closed. Photo by Valerie Plesch, @valerieplesch 2) Ali Ahmed left South Kordofan, Sudan, in 2005. He received asylum in Italy but couldn’t find work so he moved to Germany, where he has no documents. Photo by Elie Gardner, @eliegardner 3) Women make bread inside a formerly abandoned warehouse that now houses Syrian refugees who work as laborers on farms in Turkey. Photo by Danielle Villasana, @davillasana

The past few years have shown us that the definition of “refugee” is more subjective than it appears, as thousands of individuals seeking asylum have been deported. In 2015 Norwegian photographer Andrea Gjestvang photographed youth who were deported from Norway to Iran, Afghanistan, Jordan and Nigeria in a project called “Return”. Her photos show the deported youth but also pieces of their former lives in Norway, depicting their friends and favorite places. According to a New York Times article published last fall, Norway alone returned 442 people to Afghanistan in 2016, 278 of them against their will.

UNHCR defines a refugee as:

Someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.

Salvadorian photographer and contributor to @EverydayLaFrontera Kenia Guillén says terminology matters.

“When the media refers to the thousands of unaccompanied minors as child migrants, we take away from the urgency of the Central American refugee crisis happening today,” she says.

From top, left to right: 1) A father and daughter hug through the border dividing the United States and Mexico in Nogales. Photo by Alonso Castillo, @alonsocastillo26 2) A man dressed as Uncle Sam sits along the route where Mexicans cross into the United States, encouraging them to buy dollars and send money back to Mexico. Photo by Alonso Castillo, @alonsocastillo26 3) Westbury, New York, on the weekends. Photo by Kenia Guillén, @guillenken 4) Procession for the Virgin of Guadalupe in Westbury, New York. Photo by Kenia Guillén, @guillenken 5) @ixim5 wears a traditional Kaqchikel Maya corte from her hometown Chimaltenango, Guatemala. Photo by Kenia Guillén, @guillenken

Everyday La Frontera is a collective of photographers who started exploring the concept of migration through documenting Mexico’s northern border with the United States. Since its start, it has expanded to include additional stories of immigration from within the U.S. and throughout Latin America. Founder Alonso Castillo says the group hopes to depict an alternative story, one that helps to erode a history of discrimination, victimization and criminalization.

Kenia lives in New York, where she often photographs Central American communities. There she thinks the line between immigrant and refugee has blurred for those who have entered the United States in recent years.

“The huge influx of unaccompanied minors fleeing gang violence from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala by crossing into the United States has challenged the term migrant in our communities,” Kenia says. “These children, teenagers, mothers and fathers are not just seeking a ‘better life’ anymore. For many of them, this is the only chance they have at life.”

1) Wasson, 21, an orphan and climate change refugee, left Haiti to find a job in the Dominican Republic. He is paid approximately $2.50 for each ton of cane and, on a productive day, will reach a maximum of three tons. Photo by James Whitlow Delano, @jameswhitlowdelano 2) Displaced by drought in northwestern Somaliland, Mako Farah and her children camp by the side of the road on their long journey home. Their husbands and brothers remained behind with their surviving animals in a desperate attempt to save what was left of the family’s herd. Several successive poor rainy seasons, made worse by El Niño conditions in the Horn of Africa, hit northern Somalia hard, leaving 1.7 million people in need of aid. Photo by Nichole Sobecki, @nicholesobecki

The impact of climate change is also driving human migration. James Whitlow Delano started @EverydayClimateChange to give what he calls a “shadow player” in global human rights the attention it deserves.

In the Dominican Republic James photographed 21-year-old Wasson, who left Haiti to work and support his siblings. The level of desertification in Haiti from deforestation has pushed its citizens abroad so James says many Haitians, like Wasson, end up with tenuous visa status and lack of legal rights. Severe drought in the Horn of Africa has similarly driven thousands to the same camp where Matilde photographed Somalians fleeing civil war decades ago.

“It is easier to describe how war or economics are driving forces creating refugees’ migrations,” James says. “But so often climate change has a hand in exacerbating or even initiating the factors triggering these crises.”


Most of our lives are and will become increasingly intertwined with stories of movement and survival.

“War, global inequality, climate change, political repression and human rights violations are all interconnected issues that will need to be addressed on a deeper level, to allow people to remain living in their homes,” Katja says.

Once the dramatic images of migration are made and published, the stories must be followed. Learning a new language or battling depression as one adapts to a new culture can be as difficult as crossing the sea. These stories and images are more challenging to tell – and sell. They take time, sensitivity and a look beyond the obvious.

Katja believes there are now more opportunities for marginalized communities to share their own perspectives, but at the same time, says we are also seeing a backlash — “a rising mistrust in all types of media, corporate and social, and the closing of minds and borders.”

“Ironically, as the world appears to be shrinking and contracting, and all of our lives feel ever more inter-related, we still struggle with the basic concepts of sorting humanity into us versus them,” Katja says. “How do we tell stories that reach people outside of their immediate in-group?”

Photos of refugees tend to depict struggle, hugs through iron bars and life in camps, but they also depict the resilience and hope that so many photographers allude to. Eventually — and hopefully — after time in camps, waiting periods for documents and cultural and linguistic assimilation, refugee stories may no longer be categorized as such. They’ll just be stories of life, much like the images of Everyday La Frontera and Everyday Golshahr.

But that takes time — and a certain amount of luck. There are refugees today who will most likely die in the camps where they were born. Kenia encourages us to contemplate those currently stuck in camps, detention centers and private prisons; waiting for asylum to be granted; undocumented individuals threatened by deportation; and the thousands who never make it safely to another country.

“Immigration policies can only evolve if our collective thinking evolves,” Kenia says.

Syrian refugees sell small goods at sunset inside the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Photo by Tara Todras-Whitehill, @taratwphoto for the New York Times