War is merciless: It can level homes and entire neighborhoods. It can take life and destroy much of what’s left of it. But what it can’t wipe out are the most basic human desires: to be happy, safe and loved.
That’s what over a million people risked their lives to find when they fled to the European Union from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries caught in conflict. But for the tens of thousand now stranded indefinitely across Greece and the Balkans, their dreams have been put on hold.
Even though I am a photographer who has covered humanitarian crises for upwards of a decade, this mass movement of men, women and children was one of the most shocking events I’ve ever witnessed.
I’ve been documenting Europe’s refugee crisis for over a year now with the International Rescue Committee. But the world has seemingly become numb to the story. How do we bring a new visual perspective to an ongoing tragedy that feels a universe away for many people?
Our team at Vignette Interactive — a media production company with a focus on social issues in the Middle East — worked with the IRC and Game of Thrones co-star Lena Headey on a creative way to share the stories of refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos who are trying to make their way to the western European mainland.
We took portraits and recorded video of some of the refugees stuck in limbo there, asking a simple question: what are your dreams?
Stripped of the context of the refugee camp and sitting in front of a simple black background, they were simply fellow human beings — people with hopes and dreams like anyone else.
Our aim was to help viewers understand that there isn’t much of a difference between themselves and these refugees — except, perhaps, that while they may have been lucky enough to be born in a peaceful place, refugees have fled war and unrest, wanting nothing more than the safety, happiness and love we all crave.
My dream was to study. Now, I just want to see my father.
Name: Nour El-Deen
From: Aleppo, Syria
My life dream was to study. One day, we went out to buy stuff to celebrate my birthday. But when we came back, a bomb hit the house and my mother died inside. We came here [to Greece] and suffered a lot. Now, I just want to see my father. I don’t want anything other than to be with my father.
My dream was safety for my children. Now, I want to help all refugees.
Name: Semin Yousefi
From: Kabul, Afghanistan
I want to become someone who can help her society and people. My dream is to continue my education and become someone. I have to try to get somewhere so that I can have all my children with me — one is still in Afghanistan. My dream in Afghanistan was safety for my children and now I want help my people and all refugees and migrants who have problems.
My dream was to fight against the inequalities in society…But I have not lost hope.
I worked as a social activist. My dream was to help the people deprived of basic human rights and democracy. I raised my voice against dark-minded people and extremists. I wanted to fight deeply against the inequalities in society.
But I was unaware of my weaknesses. I thought my dreams would come true. I was thinking that dreams [were close]. But one day, I was warned and threatened that I would be shot in my head and that my sisters would be kidnapped.
All the dreams, all the ambitions were buried in the ground. I soon realized that if I continued working for the suffering people, I would lose my family.
I was forced to leave the country and the place of my birth, my home, my family and everything. But I have not lost my hope. Now I’m here. I have escaped my home. Now I’m here and I’ll still dream forward. I will work hard. I know I will reach somewhere where I can definitely start working towards society and for the people.
My dream was to see my children live in a house and educate their children.
Name: Fouda Al Bedwe
From: Homs, Syria
I was living happily with my children. I have many sons and daughters. The war came and suffering came with it.
My children are in different places now. We came here without expecting this — exhaustion and suffering. We’ve been suffering for five years.
My dream was to see my children live in a house and educate their children. My grandchildren left school. My hope now is to settle in a safe country with my son.
My dream is for my children to not have the same life as me, a life of war.
Name: Envar Ido
From: Sinjar, Iraq
I have been constantly plagued by troubles. Since I was 10, the only thing I have seen is war. And in all this mess, ISIS has given us the hardest times. I was never able to achieve my dreams to have nice life.
On Aug. 3, 2014, we gathered on the top of a mountain [when ISIS attacked]. We stayed on that mountain for eight days without water or food with my family of 12 people. Nobody allowed us to take anything with us. Since then, we have had terrible times.
I wish I could go to a safer country so that I can make my dreams and my kids’ dreams real. My dream is for my children to not have the same life as me, a life of war.
My dreams is to become a pilot. I will achieve it.
Name: Tariq Najim
From: Damascus, Syria
I was in Syria during the beginning of the uprising and the war. I went to Jordan and lived there for more than a year. I wanted to be a civil pilot, but I wasn’t able to continue studying. The uprising happened and things on the ground changed. I had to leave to dodge the military service so that I wouldn’t kill people.
I’d like to go to Germany and continue my studies, but I don’t even know whether they’d allow me to. I want to become a pilot. This is my dream and I will achieve it.
My dream is to live like everyone else, in freedom and prosperity.
Name: Ismael Aziz Muhideen
From: Sulaymaniyah, Iraq
I was hoping I would live like anybody else, but ever since I opened my eyes in this world, I was never happy in my life.
My dream is just like the dreams of others. I’d like to live in one of the European countries, because in Iraq there is no democracy and no freedom. It’s a fight between the Sunni, Shia, Yazidis and Kurds — a group of religious and secular parties that appear to be loyal to Iraq and their nationalism, but are mafias buying and selling the Iraqi people — no matter their race.
I’d like to live like the rest of the people, in freedom and prosperity. I don’t differentiate humans. There is no difference, whether this is a Muslim or a Christian or a Yazidi.
All photos taken by Tara Todras-Whitehill for the IRC
Refugee crisis in Europe and Middle East: How the IRC helps
The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping people to survive, recover and reclaim control of their future. Founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, the IRC has works in over 40 countries and in 28 resettlement offices across the United States. Learn more about the IRC’s response to the refugee crisis and how you can help.
Find more refugee voices in the IRC’s Uprooted publication on Medium.