Brian Sokol
Humanizing the refugee crisis
TEDxSanDiego 2017

In August of 2012 I was in a tent very near the North-South border between Sudans. It was the first time that I’d been in a refugee camp. It was a bit past midnight and sitting just to the left of my computer screen was a half-consumed bottle of very warm vodka, and on the screen in front of me was this photograph. This was the photograph that I had been sent here to take. I’d climbed up onto a pole in order to get to a vantage point where you could see the queue of people extending towards the horizon, thousands of faces waiting to take up mosquito nets, peanut butter supplements, dried lentils.

And looking at that photograph, I began to feel nausea, and I thought I might throw up into my screen, and maybe it was the vodka, but I think it was actually this vast gulf, this huge disconnect between everything that I had seen and experienced over that past week, and the picture that was staring back at me.

There’s a very specific kind of photograph that is a refugee photo. You’ll know it if you’ve seen one, and you’ll know as a photographer that you’ve succeeded in taking one if it looks exactly like every iconic refugee photograph that came before. These pictures are quite clear. You can usually tell one by the presence of either dust or rain. They’re usually tired people carrying bundles. Sometimes there are leaky boats, and there’s usually fences or coils of barbed wire. Now these photographs aren’t necessarily bad, in fact they can be quite powerful. Problem is that these photographs are one sided.

There is a reason that they exist. These photographs can and do possess the power to shock us into attention to illuminate crises that might otherwise continue to be ignored. But what they do not do is challenge our beliefs on our preconceptions.

If I were to look at these photographs, these photographs that I’ve taken, what I would be able to tell you about refugees is that they are generally hungry and tired, and I don’t know if I can tell you much more than that. I don’t know if I would have any idea that refugees also get married, that refugees attend birthday parties, and refugees, yes refugees, have Facebook accounts.

Now the Western narrative of refugees, which has become the dominant, the only narrative of refugees, has the effect of reducing people into victims and reducing stories into mere tales of one dimensional pity and sorrow. We’re spoon fed repetitious images that match the stereotypes, and as the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, the problem with stereotypes, is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.

The United Nations, various NGOs, and the media also love statistics. Statistics exist for a reason. They’re meant to give weight and gravity to crises, to help us to understand. But how often do we use to autistics in order to describe the things or the people that we love? Now say we were in this horrible, horrible parallel universe, a universe in which you had no idea what a puppy is. And I were to explain to you what a puppy is through statistics. So you should know that a puppy has 17 vertebrae in its tail, its shoulder height is roughly 28 centimeters, and the circumference of its paws is 34.32 millimeters.

Do you now know what a puppy is? Now compare that to just playing with a dog for 30 seconds, or reading the account of a little girl who took her puppy to the park for the very first time, or to the snow.

My point is this. That we learn not so much from data or statistics as we do from stories and experiences. And yeah, in case you’re wondering, that’s my new puppy. Her name’s Cabbage. She’s great. The other thing that you should know about statistics is that while they’re intended to quantify humanity, they usually dehumanize the people that they’re entrusted with and counting for.

Say I were to tell you that 2.1 million people over the past year have fled from South Sudan across the border into Uganda. 2.1 million. Now maybe your brain is bigger than mine and you can really conceive of those numbers, but for me that number gets lost. Unless I can attach it to an actual flesh and blood human being, it really doesn’t have any meaning. That’s because there’s a big difference between knowledge and information.

And I think that what we need in order to understand something of this scale, things like the refugee crisis, are not statistics, they’re not numbers, but they’re stories, stories of individual people. So let’s go back to that tent it’s now two o’clock in the morning the vodka bottle is down to about a third now, and I’m sitting there plugging in captions to the really dramatic photograph that I’ve just captured, and I’m saying there are 234,000 people that have crossed that border.

And while that number is completely factual, it’s completely true, there’s something that rings within me as dishonest about what it is that I’m doing. I think it’s because when I was there the thing that was not so impressive wasn’t the scale of the number of refugees, it wasn’t how many there were, it wasn’t how much they were suffering, it was the fact that as I walked around photographing ,day in and day out, I was followed by laughter and smiles in this place which I had no ability to believe that would happen.

That there were children playing everywhere I went, just like anywhere else. The kids were finding little bits of sandal and picking up sticks in order to make cars that they were driving around in the camps, or collecting discarded bits of netting in order to make soccer balls and play. And the emotion that welled up within me, as I interacted with these people, it wasn’t pity, it wasn’t even sympathy, it was respect. I was amazed to find that this was not just a one dimensional horror show and that these people were not just mere victims, that they were actually dignified individuals.

I’d only been told one story about refugee camps beforehand, and that was one of horror, and it wasn’t true, wasn’t entirely true. The greater thing is that in this place where people had lost so much, people who had lost their children, lost their homes, lost their flocks, lost their fields, and were now living in tents in a foreign country surrounded by strangers, that not only did they maintain their dignity, the human heart is so big that these people have maintained the ability to love.

And at this point I was quite ashamed of myself. I was ashamed of the photographs that I was taking that reducing these people to stereotypes, that were turning them into the exact same things that had only evoked fear and pity in me. So what did I do? I changed. I decided that rather than telling the story of 234,000 nameless, faceless refugees I would simply tell this story of one person, and I’d tell it in a way that audiences around the world, regardless of what culture they might be from, what the color of their skin was, would be able to empathize with that person, would hopefully be able to put themselves into the shoes of a refugee for just one moment.

And the idea was very, very simple I just asked refugees to tell me their story, and tell me what was the single most important object that they brought with them when they fled from their home and their country. The project that evolved out of this is called The Most Important Thing, and I’d like to share some of the stories of the people that I met with you through it.

This is Dawla. I met Dowla in South Sudan. She’d fled several weeks before this from her home in the village of Gabonit after her home was bombed. That was the mother of six children, and the most important thing that she brought with her is the poll that you can see draped across her shoulders with those two baskets. Sometimes she had to carry two children in each basket as she was walking with another one dangling from her back, and then another walking beside her as she made the 10 day journey by mountain trails.

This is Layla. I met Layla in northern Iraq, just as winter was beginning to come in. She, her family, and 3 other families were living in a roofless concrete structure, and Layla told me that the scariest thing in Syria was the voice of the tanks. “It was even more scary than the sound of the planes because I felt like the tanks were coming in specifically for me.” The most important thing that Layla brought with her are the jeans that she’s carrying here.

She says, “I went shopping with my parents and I looked for hours without finding anything that I liked. But when I saw these jeans I instantly knew they were perfect, because they have flowers, and I love flowers.” She’d only worn them 3 times in her life, all in Syria. Twice at weddings, and one time when her grandfather came to visit. She told me that she didn’t want to wear them again until she attended another wedding and she hoped that that one too would be in Syria.

This is Sebastian. Sebastian was 7 when his family fled Angola’s war of independence and they crossed into the Democratic Republic of Congo. That was more than 60 years ago. Sebastian told me I remember that it was cold, and then my father gave me his jacket to keep me warm. I was wearing it as we crossed the border, and every time that I see it, even now, as I’m telling you this story, I’m reminded of him and Angola. The day that we cross back into Angola I will have it with me, and I will remember my father. I will wear it because I am now a father myself. Two weeks later Sebastian went home to Angola.

But not everyone is so lucky. Today there are 65 plus million people who have been forced from their homes by war. Sixty-five million people. That’s more than during World War II. It’s the greatest number at any point in recorded history. Put that in other terms, that’s nearly one out of 100 people on earth.

And I’d like to share one more story with you, one more story of 65 million people. This is the story of my friend Fayiz. Fayiz is a person who is not very different from any of the people in this room today. And I think that rather than me telling you about Fayiz, he should do so in his own words and his own voice.

“The situation in Syria was very complicated. So they had killed kids. So just imagine yourself coming to your house finding your kids. I couldn’t sleep. I left everything. My name is Fayiz. I’m from a small village in Syria. I’m an English teacher. I didn’t choose to pay refugee. Here in this camp I feel safe for my children because I know that no one will come and kill them. Before the conflict started in Syria we were watching refugees all around the world, specially in Africa. But I never thought that I will be a refugee.

Refugee is a person. He’s not from here. His tradition is different from us. Refugee, also is a human being. He has friends, he as emotions, has everything that God gives a human being. A refugee is just political name. We are dreaming every day of our houses or the friends that we left. The future is completely destroyed for me and my wife, but my kids, in five years maybe we can build a future for them. And they have time to forget, to prepare themselves, to rebuild, to, you know, repair. So their dream, better to take care of their dreams.

The stories that you’ve heard tonight, this afternoon have all been ones of war, but war isn’t the only thing that drives people out of their homes. Many of the refugees around the world have fled because of who they love, have had to leave their homes and their countries because of the color of their skin, or the ethnic group into which they were born.

So now, in this age where fear and xenophobia can very quickly morph into policy, it’s more important than ever that we remember that it’s not only tanks and bombs that can force us from our homes. So the next time that you see a photograph, a dramatic one of large numbers of people that are sad and carrying bundles, or the next time you hear a story, a very simple one full of shocking statistics about a group you may not understand very well, ask for more.

Think of Layla, and think of Fayiz, and remember, this isn’t numbers, it’s people. I’d like to leave you with a question. If you had 30 seconds before you had to run, carrying whatever you could, climb out the window at the back of your house and go out into the night, perhaps never to return, what would you bring with you? What’s your most important thing?