Voices of Refugees: Local Photographer Shares Stories of Displaced Peoples

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Voices of Refugees: Local Photographer Shares Stories of Displaced Peoples

Claire Veale and Shayanne Gal, Creators of Voices of Refugees

A woman in a beautifully textured head scarf holds up a baby dressed in a red and white Santa Claus outfit. With her arms raised high and her back to the camera, she directs our attention upward as we are pulled to look at the smiling baby, who reaches out a chubby arm to something outside of the frame. Behind them, a blurry background may hold laundry, buildings, furniture. A haze of green marks a patch of trees. Aida, 26 years old, from Aleppo, Syria. Photo: Claire Veale

The picture is of Aida, a 26-year-old refugee from Aleppo, Syria, who crossed the sea to Greece from Turkey in an inflatable boat, eight months before this photo was taken. She was afraid for her life then, but she says that the challenges of living in the camp are worse: 

Here in the camp, I am always afraid, and worrying about my children. It is a miserable life for them here. In Syria, I could buy them new clothes when the seasons changed, they never lacked anything. But now I cannot even get them warm clothes for the winter and they are so cold. It is sad and humiliating to have to beg for a simple jumper from the NGOs for our children.

I ask myself everyday ‘Why are we here?’ I cannot believe we are going to spend the winter in this camp.

Aida's is one story among several pages of beautiful, intimate photographs paired with the words of the far-flung inhabitants of refugee camps in Greece. Displaced by unrest in their home countries, by unimaginable violence, persecution, and fear for themselves and for their loved ones, they have ended up in limbo. Some have plans to move on, others wait to go back home. And now, two women have begun to chronicle their stories, to share their voices with the world through image and text.

This is Voices of Refugees, a project visualized and executed by Shayanne Gal and Claire Veale. Gal, who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and moved to Asheville for several years, started volunteering in Greece after a several-month period spent working for an Israeli tech startup. She met Veale earlier this year, and they connected over their passion for humanitarian work. Together they started Voices of Refugees. They create content, photographing interviewees and recording their stories, letting them speak for themselves with little to no editorializing. Gal, Veale, and their contributors realize that it's the stories that matter, and that will connect these individuals and families with viewers and readers across the networked world.

I first heard about Voices of Refugees from Gal, who I'd run into in Asheville at several concerts (she's a music fan and has done a lot of concert photography). Petite, bubbly, poised, and fiercely sharp in her intuition and wit, she creates beautiful, inspiring images, from portraits to wilderness shots. She has the ability to zoom into the cracks of faces as well as landscapes, highlighting the power of people and places. 
Siba, 20 years old, from Qamishli, Syria. Photo: Shayanne Gal

23-year-old Gal grew up in New York. She describes herself as "an enthusiastic photographer and traveler driven by a love for communications, cultural exchange, and making the world a smaller, more connected space through collective visual and written experiences through her website: www.shayanneigans.com." 

Gal studied Communications, Spanish, and Hebrew at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After graduating in May 2014, she moved to Santiago, Chile, where she taught EFL to university students for a year. Shortly thereafter, she combined her passions for interpersonal communication and digital media, and delved into a career in digital marketing, with a few month stint at a tech start-up in Israel. After finding herself in the Middle East, the refugee crisis hit a lot closer to home. Amidst one of the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, she was moved to volunteer with and provide first-hand assistance to the refugees who have endured so much violence, aggression, and war - those have lost everything but the clothes on their backs in an effort to reach safety and start a new life. She has now been volunteering in Greece for 2 months. She wrote about her experience volunteering in the camp recently for The Huffington Post. Motivated by a passion for shedding light on the complex human experience and promoting social justice, she created Voices of Refugees, she looks forward to continue highlighting individual raw perspectives on human displacement as they pertain to refugees in our global society.

Veale is 27 years old, of mixed French/British nationality. With a Masters in Conflict, Development & Humanitarian Emergencies from SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) in London, Claire has worked and lived in almost a dozen countries, including in Bolivia, where she worked with a Bolivian research institution on labor rights, gender issues and environmental protection. Claire is passionate about using photography and visual media to advocate for human rights and social justice. You can see more of her work at www.claraveale.com.

This year, she is taking time off to volunteer in refugee camps, to support the humanitarian efforts on the ground and meet the people behind the word ‘refugee’. Claire has been in Greece for three months volunteering, and conducting research on human rights in various camps. She set up Voices of Refugees in the aim of giving back the dignity to those who feel they have lost everything, and to illustrate one of the most complex political and social issues through the power of photography and the refugees’ own words.

Veale's eye is just as tuned in to the details, to capturing the moments that tell stories, shift perceptions, and change lives. Deeply moved by the project, I reached out to them to find out more about the project and their plans for Voices of Refugees, which also accepts contributions from other photographers and writers.

Salim, 27 years old, from Aleppo, Syria. Photo: Claire Veale

Ali McGhee (AM): Say a little bit about how this project got started. How did you connect with each other?

Voices of Refugees (VoR): Before traveling to Greece and meeting each other on the ground, we were both individually interested in learning more about the refugee crisis. More specifically, about people’s personal accounts of their experiences, fleeing violence and war, and currently, being stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare in their pursuit of a new life. We were both passionate about using photography to advocate for social change and create collective experiences. It was partly what brought us to Greece in the first place, alongside our motivation to help out.

When we first met, we instantly clicked on the idea of documenting the crisis in a different light, using our passion for photography and writing. We both felt that the way the refugee crisis was portrayed in the general media lacked the human perspective. After spending some time working on the ground at the camp, we felt compelled to share the simultaneously beautiful, distressing, and profoundly human stories of the people we shared our hours with each day. This led to the creation of the Voices of Refugees platform.

Currently, we both conduct interviews together as well as separately, and collaborate on the writing and editing of the stories and photos. We both share the vision that Voices of Refugees will act as a collaborative global series that goes far beyond the refugee camp we volunteer at. We welcome submissions of stories and we encourage anyone with a unique voice to add to this narrative, to submit photos, stories, or videos at v.of.refugees@gmail.com.

AM: Has it been challenging to get people to open up about their experiences? If so, how have you helped them to open up?

VoR: We try to avoid taking the investigative journalism stance of pushing people to share memories or experiences they do not want to share. On the contrary, Voices of Refugees aims to let participants drive their own stories by choosing what they are most comfortable sharing.  In some instances, we have discussed security issues with participants, when, for example, Kurdish Syrians talk about their violent encounters with police when they were residing in Turkey. However, when the participant decides to omit certain parts of their accounts, we do not push them to share more, and respect their privacy.

We knew that this project would require a lot of personal and emotional energy from the refugees, so we always make sure that they all feel absolutely certain about sharing their stories with us and the world online. As this crisis is tremendously vulnerable, our main priority is making sure that the refugees would not be putting themselves, or their families who stayed behind in the countries they’ve fled from, at risk.

When conducting personal interviews, we find comfortable and private spaces, with the support of friends and community members if needed, for the refugees to feel at ease sharing their story.

Overall, we find that people are eager to share their stories, as they feel forgotten by the world’s media, and hope to bring a spotlight on their situation, for people to change their perspectives on the migrant crisis and open their hearts up to them.

Anwar, 32, from Darfur, Sudan. Photo: Allison Voigts

AM: What other kinds of resistance have you encountered? What is it like to be on the ground, reporting from these locations?

VoR: In executing the project, we’ve encountered some practical obstacles, such as scheduling the interviews and overcoming language barriers/ ensuring adequate translation.

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Regarding scheduling - as our current work as volunteers is our main priority, it is sometimes difficult to find sufficient time to dedicate to approaching the residents, conducting interviews, and taking photos. We have to work around our own schedules, as well as take into consideration the residents’ and translators’ schedules.

In addition to this obstacle, we have also been faced with significant language barriers, and it has not always been easy to find translators available for the scheduled interview sessions, mostly conducted in Arabic and Kurdish. We have nevertheless received the help of several very supportive translators, and many residents themselves, who speak English and have offered to translate.

As time has passed, we’ve developed stronger relationships with the residents at the camp, and with the release of the online platform, have received a lot of positive feedback and willing engagement for future interviews.

As we are working in the camps and reporting from these locations, we are given the opportunity to really get to know the refugees on an individual level, and share their everyday lives. This allows them to get to know us and trust us to share their more intimate and deeply personal experiences for the platform, a unique element that not many journalists have time to experience. Voices of Refugees is giving a space for refugees to express themselves and share their stories in the way they are most comfortable doing so. Furthermore, as volunteers on the ground, our experiences with the refugees and in the telling of their stories, in turn, give us the opportunity to shape our work as volunteers and improve the dire conditions of the camp in any way we can.Alia, 53 years old, from Aleppo, Syria. Photo: Claire Veale

AM: What are a couple of your favorite images and/or stories?

VoR: We truly believe that all the stories we have published so far have a unique element that makes each one special; however, we feel that sharing the experiences and stories of women in the camps is especially rewarding, because their voices are not always heard. Women do a lot of hard work and some of them have gone through intense, life-changing experiences such as pregnancies and giving birth throughout their journeys to Europe. These stories are breathtaking, raw, and beautiful, and they portray the incredible resilience of women faced with unimaginable hardships - a perspective we feel is especially important for us to highlight.

One of these women whose story we have recorded is Aida, who is 26 years old, with four children; her last son is only 1 year old and was born in Turkey, on the journey to Europe. Despite the difficult situation of having to raise her children through these terrible, life-altering events, Aida keeps her good mood and smiles, and works very hard to protect her family. Although she has not been to school, she is now learning English in the camp to make sure she can provide for her family once she settles in Europe. Meeting people like Aida truly bring us hope for the future and remind us of the incredible strength these women portray throughout this dire crisis.

Another one of these women is Alia, who is 53, has three children, and is a grandmother of two. Alia and her husband have managed to keep their family together throughout the journey, traveling with their three children, including their eldest daughter and her husband, and their two children. Although the future worries her, especially the prospect of settling and integrating in a new country, she stays strong for her children, and hopes her youngest son can one day attend a good school in Europe. Alia reminds us that our fears and hopes are similar, and she says that all she wants is to find a quiet place to sit and rest in peace.

We would also like to share one of our first favorite stories, which is of Salah’s family, who struggled to make their way safely to Greece, living and working in Turkey before making the dangerous crossing over the sea. Salah almost lost his baby daughter in the sea, and is now anxious to get her to a proper home in Europe, where she can grow up safe. He says that these days, she is the only thing that makes him smile. His story, we feel, is a testament to the obstacles the refugees often face on their journeys to Europe in pursuit of safe refuge and a new life for themselves and their loved ones. 

Salah, 29 years old, from Aleppo, Syria. Photo: Shayanne Gal

AM: What are the technical details of the shoots? 

VoR: The shoots happen at varying times of day - completely dependent on our schedules and of the residents schedules coinciding. We both use Cannon DSLRs, a Cannon t2i and a Cannon 600D, with 50mm lenses for better portrait shots.

We try to make sure that we take the photos during the day, with some natural daylight accompanying the shots, as the residence of the refugees at the refugee camps get quite dark and lack artificial lighting at night which would make the photos possible. Our aim is to publish our photos online with as little editing as possible to give an accurate, raw portrait of the situation. This is why choosing natural light is important.

AM: Do you have long-term plans or goals for the project?

VoR: Overall goal: Voices of Refugees is a collection of stories revealing the human perspective behind the global refugee crisis. Men, women, and children, each with their own unique stories, are risking their lives seeking refuge from war and violence. The overall goal of the project aims at shedding a light on individual stories, through the various mediums of photography, texts, audio and video, in an effort to expose the reality of human displacement. In sharing these stories, we hope to give these displaced humans a voice, and at minimum, a sense of dignity and respect from the global community that engages with the project and the individual humans portrayed in each post.

Long-term goal: In the long term, Voices of Refugees will ideally continue to gather more followers and engagement as a platform, as well as become a place for not only the stories we collect, but also for contributions by other journalists, photographers, and refugees themselves from around the globe. Our vision is to create a communal space for all different types of narratives on human displacement in our current global society. We hope to build and maintain a community where the contributors and the readers can collectively engage in bringing real change to the lives of refugees impacted by this crisis.

AM: Where are your travels taking you next?

VoR: Shayanne’s upcoming future plans circulate around continuing to contribute to and assist refugees throughout this dire crisis in any way possible - for the remaining months volunteering at a refugee camp in Greece, as well as beyond in her next endeavors back in the United States. She aims to continue using photography, digital media, and journalism to promote and advocate for causes she believes in, to expand the Voices of Refugees platform, and to pursue sharing collective visual experiences through her travels across the globe.

Claire’s immediate future plan consists of traveling further in Greece and in other relevant countries, to meet more displaced peoples in various settings, in order to portray different realities and share more stories on Voices of Refugees. She hopes to continue working with photography and writing during her travels, and advocate for social justice along the way.Adnan, 44 years old, from Duhok, Iraq. Photo: Allison Voigts

AM: How can people help (Grit readers, Facebook fans of the project, etc)?

VoR: In order to help, we believe the first step is to better understand the individual perspectives of refugees affected by the crisis, through engaging with and spreading the word about the Voices of Refugees platform on Facebook: facebook.com/vofrefugees.

We also encourage learning more about the situation in Syria and in the Middle East, as well as the refugee crisis from trustworthy news outlets, rather than tabloid, for-profit media. We recommend resources like Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart, The Syrian Civil War breakdown, Amnesty International’s or Medecins sans Frontieres’ special reports on the situation on the ground, and short films about the refugee crisis.

If you are willing and able to take your support one step further, there are many organizations on the ground that run crucial programs in the camps that support the refugees in various ways. Here are a few we believe are contributing positively to the camps we are familiar with who could benefit from financial donations:

  • ECHO100Plus is an NGO working in Ritsona Refugee camp and on Leros Island with the distribution of food, clothes, shoes, hygiene products and other items such as blankets, headlights, and tarps. ECHO100Plus is entirely dependent on the support of donations, and you can donate easily by visiting their webpage.

 

  • LightHouse Relief is also a small scale organization, focusing on services for women and children. They are present in several camps across Greece and set up safe spaces for women and children, as well as provide educational and recreational activities. You can learn more about their programs and donate to them on their website.

 

  • If you are interested in donating to larger organizations that have operations in the whole of Greece, we recommend you donate to either  Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors without Borders or Médecins du Monde/Doctors of the World. Both organizations work on medical services, providing crucial resources in the camps, and are well known for their independence vis-a-vis larger funded bodies and political conditions.