EXPOSURES Uncertain Journeys BY ASHLEY GILBERTSON NOV. 21, 2015 Photo Volunteers help refugees, primarily from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, disembark on the island of Lesbos, Greece, near Turkey. The Aegean Sea is particularly rough, with the first signs of winter storms beginning in late September when I made this photograph. During their journey, many refugees were seasick, and some suffered from life-threatening dehydration and cold. Credit Photographs by Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo for Unicef
AFTER the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, our resolve to help refugees should be stronger than ever. As we express our anger and grief, we must remember that they are fleeing precisely the type of violence that France experienced that night. Rather than turning them away, the United States and Europe need to fully commit to managing their safe passage, screening and settlement, and not leave it up to the ragtag teams of volunteers who have so far been stepping in where governments and agencies have failed.
I recently spent three weeks photographing the refugee crisis in Greece, the Balkans and Germany, on assignment for Unicef. On the rocky shores of the Greek island of Lesbos, people scrambled out of their boats, welcomed by an ad hoc group of dedicated and passionate volunteers. Almost 700,000 refugees have arrived in the country this year after making the dangerous passage by sea from Turkey.
Governments and NGOs generally have sophisticated systems in place to manage the flow of people in emergency situations in developing countries. But I came across only occasional interventions by organized agencies.
The volunteers, many on vacation from throughout Europe and the United States, were filling the gaps. Some of them had medical training; a group of Spanish lifeguards patrolled the coast, diving into the frigid waters to rescue people; some handed out sandwiches they were making all day; and others distributed warm, dry clothes collected from towns and suburbs back home.
“Welcome to Europe!” they called out, hugging relieved refugees. There were many tears. Children, then parents, were wrapped in metallic space blankets. They were given medical assistance and provided with information about the next steps in their passage.
Their welcome is some of the only warmth in a cold and arduous journey. Men, women, children, the disabled, the elderly — no matter — they’re all packed one on top of the other into crowded train cars; screamed at in foreign languages; marched to buses by platoons of cops in full riot gear; kept in lines or clear of border fences by police officers using tear gas and batons; forced to wait for days at a time in filthy, backed–up transit centers; and generally treated like undesirables, or worse, like criminals.
I expected the scenes of grief, trauma and desperation. I was surprised to find the many moments of relief, even joy, as the refugees built bonds and passed through hardship together. It is crucial that we bear witness to all of these aspects of the story.
As members of the public, I believe, we need to act as the watchdogs of governments and local authorities. We have to demand that policy makers provide systematic humanitarian assistance and not leave it solely up to volunteers to do the work.
We should be pressuring governments to treat the refugees as members of their own families. And everybody could be donating clothes, money or even our vacation time to receive them where they arrive.
We should not let that terrible night in Paris diminish our sense of humanity and responsibility. Let’s remember that the society that we are so protective of is built on the will of refugees — our own families and the families making the frightening journey today — with the hope of providing a better life for our children.
I also saw many moments of bonding. Two brothers, on the left, Ali Abdul-Halim, 17, and Ahmad Abdul-Halim, 15, are moving unaccompanied to Germany from their home in Balabak, Lebanon. They paused on a rock to call their parents to say that they’d survived the journey over the sea.
Hussein Nabizadeh, 32, held his son’s hand as they began the long walk to an aid station that would provide dry clothes and food.
Eventually, a lone Dutch volunteer showed up. He had no idea what to do — and why should he?
At a transit camp in Gevgelija, Macedonia, people queued up to register and receive travel papers after crossing the border from Greece. From here, refugees board a special train that takes them to the Serbian border, a transit country for most of the refugees heading west.
People prepared to board a train at Gevgelija.
Transport options are becoming increasingly limited as the crisis develops, and operators of special trains like this are charging refugees about $37 each to make their way north. A number of people run out of money before they manage to enter the European Union.
Men, women, children, the disabled and the elderly are all packed like cattle into overcrowded trains across Macedonia, from the edge of Greece to the Serbian border. Passengers often wear masks to avoid inhaling the exhaust from the engine and to mask the foul smell of the toilet and burning brake pads. Throughout their journey, they are extorted by mafia-run operations and human smugglers.
In a quiet moment, Rosa Jelal, 20, changed her daughter as they passed through a transit center in Sid, Serbia. Ms. Jelal is a refugee from Kobani, Syria, and was hoping to make her way to Germany with her family.
Refugees waited in lines for up to three days in Presevo, Serbia. Most days, about 5,000 people crowded into the town, overwhelming the capacity of the reception center, and resulting in strong-arm tactics from the local police.
Muneer Yousafi, 16, who was traveling alone from Afghanistan when I met him, learned how to shave with new friends in a park by a bus station in downtown Belgrade, Serbia.
Muneer and his family left Kunduz, where he grew up, after the Taliban destroyed their house during fighting earlier this year. In the attack, Muneer lost partial use of the left side of his body, including his eye, arm and leg. “We escaped to Mazar-i-Sharif, because the situation in Kunduz was too dangerous. But all of Afghanistan is too dangerous, so my family collected all of their money and sent me here for security, and to get new citizenship,” he said. Ten days before I met him early October, he ran out of money, and had been stuck in Belgrade, living out of a tent in the park by the central bus station, which has become a resting place for those on their way west. His traveling companions continued to Germany, and, he says, “I am relying on other Afghans to give me a little bit of money until I can get enough to get to Germany.”
Three weeks after I met him, I received a note from Muneer saying he’d made it to Sweden.
Shaimae Drazeni, 15, at center, is from Halab, Syria. I photographed her as she was passing through a transit center in Berkasovo, northwest Serbia. She was relieved to be on her way to safety, though she was firm in her resolve to return to Syria as soon as she could.
An Italian volunteer sorted shoes for refugees at Miksaliste, a volunteer-run center in Serbia, which provides medical assistance, clothes, shoes, food and other necessities.
A father comforted his son inside a refugee transit center in Opatovac, Croatia. At this center, refugees were held behind high dirt berms in different quadrants of the camp, until police officers in full riot gear marched them out to buses.