Then and now: refugee lives in sharp focus

Eight women present photographs from home and reflect on the past they left behind — as well as their hopes for a brighter future.

Nour, 27, pictured in Damascus, Syria, before she fled to Austria. © UNHCR/Stefanie J. Steindl

Photographs tell a story — the story of our lives.

We fill them with faces and places. Birthdays and marriages. Holidays and home. Fleeting moments in time, captured forever on film.

A reminder, for eight refugees, of what they left behind.


© UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

My name is Susanna. I am 43 and married with two kids.

Everything was good in Syria until the war started. I had a good job and I was happy. Then suddenly there is no future. You don’t know if tomorrow is going to happen or not. When you leave your home you don’t know if you’re going to return. I built a ‘wall’ around my kids to protect them from all the problems.

After four years, I left my job, my house, my car — everything. I sent my resignation letter at the airport and tried to decide between Jordan and France. I thought about my kids. I dreamed for them peace, a future, to be able to explain what they want, to be free, to express themselves.

So I chose France.

© UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

I tried to explain in a simple and honest way to my kids why we were in France. I didn’t want them to feel like they had lost anything from their lives. I was so careful in explaining the war, all the problems, what is going on, even though I don’t think there is anyone in the world who can explain that. Now they are both very good at French, have French friends and are building their dreams. This is what I wanted. The teenager is dreaming of becoming a surgeon. The small one of course copies his brother.

I think if you decide to do something you can do it. I’m doing two masters, one in Paris and one in Orléans. Even if your life changes, you can find success somewhere else, nothing will stop you. My husband has a passion in cooking and now we are going to open a restaurant. Life is good.

In five to 10 years, I will be supporting my husband in our restaurant which is going to be like the Eiffel Tower — if you are in a taxi there will be no need to give him the address. Both of my kids will be in university and successful. I’ll be able to see my family because they are still in Syria, and Syria has peace — no more war, no more blood. This is my dream. This is what I want to see.


© UNHCR/Stefanie J. Steindl

My name is Suad, which comes from the Arabic word for ‘happiness’. I am from Somalia.

My family left Somalia because of the war. My father could work in Saudi Arabia so I went to school there. But then we had problems with our visa and we couldn’t stay any more. So we went to Syria.

I didn’t stay long, less than a year. I got a scholarship in Pakistan and left to study pharmacy. I stayed for six years — the picture with the make-up and the beautiful dresses is our farewell party. By the time I had graduated and wanted to go back to my family, the war in Syria had started.

© UNHCR/Stefanie J. Steindl

I didn’t have anyone in Somalia anymore, but I was forced to go back. In Mogadishu, it was too dangerous so I went to Oman by sea and I got a visa to go to Italy. From there, I went to Austria. It was not my plan to come here, but I saw an opportunity.

When I came to Austria, I had negative thoughts. I thought, I have studied and now what? I am not allowed to work as an asylum-seeker. I called my mum and she said: Don’t sit around, do something. So I started to volunteer as an interpreter for Diakonia and the Red Cross. They offered me a real job as soon as I was allowed to work. I love helping people. That makes me happy.

I miss my family and friends. I never really had a country. I have not seen my mom since 2009. Family is everything, without family you can hardly live. I feel like all these years, I was alone. But thank god, in all the countries I have been to, I met amazing people, amazing friends.

As a girl, I had simple dreams — to have a job, to have a degree, to work hard, to help people. To create something positive in society. Still now, I have many dreams. I know that I want to continue studying. My mom told me: “Dreams do not depend on home. They depend on you, on what you are.”


© UNHCR/Markel Redondo

My name is Manal and I am 35. I grew up in Syria.

We were nine brothers and sisters, and I was the oldest one. My mother died when I was 17 and I had to take care of my siblings. This photo is taken at a fun park on the shores of the Euphrates River, after my mother had passed away. It was the first day of Ramadan and we were on a Ferris wheel with my youngest brother. I was trying to cheer him up.

I dreamed my siblings would be able to finish their studies, because I could not. And I wished the same for my children.

But the war destroyed our hopes. Syria was lost.

© UNHCR/Markel Redondo

In August 2017, I left Syria with my five children. I would not have left my home if the situation was not so bad. From Turkey, we crossed to Lesvos and spent one month in a tent with several families. Life was very difficult. Eventually we were transferred to the mainland.

Three months ago, we moved into an apartment. Now I feel happy and relaxed. It is a quiet neighbourhood. Most importantly, the children are able to go to school, so they can continue with their education. I never expected Greece would be like this, that people would be so kind.

I want my children to finish their studies so that when we return back home they are well educated. Children will be able to rebuild Syria with their knowledge. The happiest moment in my life is yet to come. It will be when we can return to Syria in safety.


© UNHCR/Stefanie J. Steindl

My name is Nour and I am 27 years old. I am from a town near Damascus, Syria.

I studied pharmacy, but it was hard because the war began soon after I started university. Many times we could not go, sometimes for months. It was too dangerous. I saw my parents afraid for the first time.

I thought then: I could lose my family.

I worked with displaced children, holding workshops and dance lessons. I always believed that if we could save the young generation, the children, they could save our country. We spoke a lot, we played a lot and we asked a lot of questions. Why had we ended up with war? Why were we fighting each other? Could they think of a solution? What does it mean to be Syrian?

© UNHCR/Stefanie Steindl

I left Syria in 2017. If I have a wish it is that we can rebuild our country. It is completely destroyed, not only the buildings, but people and souls. But something I learnt here in Austria is to be more rational. To analyze the problems. To think about reasons and solutions. That’s why I don’t just wish for peace. It is about more. It is like medicine — it is not about treating the results, it is about treating the reasons.

In Vienna, I was so lucky, I found so many nice people around me. I started to learn German and work as a babysitter. From the first moment they trusted me because they believed in my humanity, believed in me as a person. And now, after six months, they consider me as a friend.

They said it was not enough that I was safe here — they needed to save my mind and my dreams. That’s why sometimes I stand near the Danube and I think: Thank you, Vienna. I am really grateful.


© UNHCR/Wildi Jhoan Rivero

Our names are Ketty and Kely Atencia. We are identical twins and we were born in Colombia.

In the beginning, our parents did not know that we were two. The doctor said we were too close together and the ultrasound did not capture it until later in the pregnancy. Our faces, body and voices are identical. The only difference between us is Ketty’s current pregnancy and a mole that Kely has on her lip. But we have different characters and tastes.

As children, we had to leave home at least six times as a family, in order to save our lives. We were about seven years old when dad first told us we had to run away. Armed groups had taken control of the area and started threatening our family.

Our older brother was the first to leave Colombia. Later on, we crossed into Venezuela with the help of a smuggler, who we had to pay a huge amount of money. Our identification documents were taken away and we were verbally threatened. The trip lasted almost two days. We were so scared. The suffering only ended when we saw my brother and we were finally all together.

© UNHCR/Wildi Jhoan Rivero

In Venezuela, we have been working with children from the host community for around two and a half years. We give them a space where they can learn and have some much-needed recreation time. We want to prevent violence in our community through empowerment of youth and education.

We chose this photo because we are both together and it was taken at a pivotal moment in our lives: we were going to study and that was a happy moment for us. We were beginning to touch the future.

We loved what we studied and what we learned took root inside us. Now we want to give the best of us because we met people who gave us the worst of them. We learned to grow in adversity.

Never give up. Keep fighting for your dreams of having a better life, and change the world. The most difficult part will pass. Sweet moments will come. You always have to keep going.


© UNHCR/Markel Redondo

My name is Salwa Humeidi and I am 46. I’m Palestinian and I used to live in Yarmouk camp in Damascus, Syria, where I was born.

We decided to leave Yarmouk in 2013. The situation was desperate — there was no food, no money and we had to eat grass. I asked my husband to take the boys to Palestine to stay with an uncle. But the border was closed.

So my sister and I made our way to Turkey and we spent the night in the forest. We were robbed of our money and mobile phones. Then, from Izmir, we went to the coast and boarded a boat. There were about 80 people on board, including children, the elderly and people with disabilities. After 2.5 hours we reached Lesvos. Four months later, in July, I came to Athens and applied for family reunification.

I’m still waiting for a decision.

© UNHCR/Markel Redondo

I do voluntary work now. When I first came, I stayed in an abandoned building that was being run as a shelter. There are 116 people there. Just like I was assisted, I help people who arrive by making food, distributing water, discussing their concerns and giving them a shoulder to lean on. I love them, I feel like they are my own family. I help them from my heart.

This photo was taken nine years ago on my 34th birthday at a restaurant in Damascus. We had a big celebration with music and food. It was a special day.

Life is beautiful now but something is missing. I want my husband and children. I miss my home, my place, everything. I miss every rock.

It’s all gone.


© UNHCR/Germana Lavagna

My name is Nihaya and I am 29. I’m from Chemestar, a small town in Lebanon. I was 20 when I was left my country.

I come from a family of politicians — my uncle was president of the Lebanese parliament and my grandfather was mayor of my town. My father had been arrested several times due to his political activity. Growing up, I dreamed of becoming president of my country, to change it. To work for women’s rights and equality. But no one believed that I could be president, because I was a woman. No one even paid attention to my dream.

While I was a student at university, I spoke out against the ruling party and life became dangerous for me. In 2006, during the war, three men came to get me and I was held for three days. When I was released, I was broken, I was scared. I knew then I had no choice — I had to leave.

I went through all the paperwork to get a visa for Canada, where my brother was living. I didn’t know then that the visa was for a limited time period. I got on a plane with a layover in Italy and they told me there that my visa had expired. I could not go back to Lebanon. I was stuck.

© UNHCR/Germana Lavagna

Life in Italy is hard because I am alone. I am working on being patient, setting my goals. I got my degree in international relations with a scholarship at the University of Turin, and now I am undertaking a PhD about women’s equality. Being here as a refugee, not knowing anyone and not speaking the language, opened my mind and made me understand people in need.

In this photo, I am three years old and in my family home. I gave myself a black eye while playing with my older brother. I always wanted to play with the boys, but they would not let me. I wanted to be like them physically, I wanted to be strong, but I was not allowed because I was a girl.

My dream is to continue my PhD and I would like to teach at university. Why university? Because this is the place where you can change the world.