These Photos Help Tell the Story of Syrian Refugees in Their Own Words

Esraa, Ismir, Turkey. “We left Set Zeynab a year and a half ago, and now, God willing, we are going to Germany. … I would change the hearts of the people [in Syria] because everyone hates everyone else. That is how we reached this point. The people no longer love each other.”

Loubna Mrie

Last year, while studying photojournalism at the International Center of Photography in New York, Miguel Winograd began working on a project with the aim of giving a broader voice to Syrian refugees. Along with his cousin Elisa and fellow photographer Loubna Mrie, Miguel wanted to help tell the refugees’ stories—why they had to leave and the subsequent journeys they have taken around the world. With a website designed by Elisa, they began “The Uprooting,” an online documentary project with the aim of becoming a platform for other photographers —and hopefully the refugees themselves—to share more stories about “this growing polyphonic narrative of mass migration.”

Miguel and Loubna traveled around Europe and Turkey for the first part of the project, “Stories.” They photographed and conducted extensive interviews with refugees in various stages of migration.

“I think people are just trying to get a better life and do well and not do harm wherever they are arriving,” Miguel said. “Most of them really would rather be where they were from. They left because they were forced to leave; it’s not a choice.” That message—one of many—is what he hopes to communicate as interest builds for “The Uprooting.”

“We wanted to do something online that went beyond the news, to tell people’s stories and to give a human face to this huge crisis,” he said.

Left: Medea Daghestani, Berlin, Germany. “The security services attacked my house twice—one time with weapons—and they scared my daughter. She was so scared. They also had me fired. They went to the school and told the director that I was so dangerous for the kids and he fired me on the spot.” Right: Messoud, Istanbul, Turkey. “When the war began in Syria I was studying in Aleppo University. One day there was an explosion in one of the university’s departments so I had to drop out. I want to ask people out there to stand up for us and put themselves in our position. No one would like to see their children suffer like ours have. “

Left: Miguel Winograd. Right: Loubna Mrie.

Khalil, Ismir, Turkey (name changed due to request for anonymity).  “[I’m going to miss] the shore in Latakia. The sea. And the old streets of Damascus. Damascus in general. Yarmouk. My mom died in Yarmouk and I wasn’t able to go and see her.”

Loubna Mrie

Simply telling the stories from one point of view, however, wasn’t enough. Miguel said the project was established to document what life was like for the refugees as they tried to assimilate in different cultures around the world. To do that, he began soliciting photographers to present stories that revolved about the daily lives of the refugees in their new homes.

Riksgränsen, Sweden. For most of the immigrants, this is the first time they’ve experienced snow. The hotel invested in more than 100 toboggans.

Axel Öberg

Riksgränsen, Sweden. Kazim Balkhi had a school in Afghanistan that got shut down by the Taliban because he refused to stop teaching English. He feared for his life and fled to Sweden. Balkhi has taken it upon himself to teach English and the little pieces of Swedish he has learned to help hide fellow countrymen.

Axel Öberg

Riksgränsen, Sweden. Peter Nilsson started working at Riksgränsen in the summer of 2015. He had no experience working with refugees before. In this picture, he is checking IDs, something the staff do to control that people stay in the right room and to make sure its only people that belong at Riksgränsen who stay there.

Axel Öberg

“Our idea is to have it become an open thing, so more people can contribute,” he said. “I know there are a lot of photographers who have gone to do work and have maybe not been able to publish it in other places.” Miguel pointed to the work of Axel Öberg, a Swedish photographer, who followed a group of refugees who were settling in Riksgränsen, a small Swedish town north of the polar circle, as an example of shedding light on a different aspect of the crisis. He hopes as word spreads the site will be able to include an even broader cross section of what’s happening.  

“Ideally what would be great would be able to raise some funds for it and have it translated into Arabic so it could reach the refugees themselves so they could send in their own stories,” he said. “Right now we’re just trying to get it out there.”

“I think this is such a huge story that it will keep coming back,” he said. “It was very much in the news from September to December last year … newspapers were getting the same images of people getting off the boat. There are a million new refugees in Europe now. How are they going to adapt, and what’s going to happen to them? It’s going to keep on being a relevant topic for years to come.”

Istanbul, Turkey. An exhausted refugee sleeps at the courtyard of the bus station’s mosque.

Loubna Mrie

Berlin, Germany. A Syrian boy sits outside the social services office in Berlin. With nowhere else to go, entire families have to spend full days waiting in the courtyard of Lageso for a registration appointment. 

Miguel Winograd

Berlin, Germany. Afghan, Pakistani, and Syrian refugees line up outside the registration center for refugees in Berlin for a warm cup of coffee handed out by volunteers. In late October, recognizing the inefficiencies of the system and the incoming winter temperatures, German authorities opened a second registration center in the capital.

Miguel Winograd