The war in Syria has sparked the worst refugee crisis in recorded history. While the crisis has not fully hit us in the U.S., its impact in Europe and the Middle East is unprecedented. According to the United Nations High Commisioner for Refugees (UNHCR), "4.8 million have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq and 6.6 million have been internally displaced within Syria." In August 2015, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel announced an open door policy to immigrants fleeing war zones.
The UNHCR states, “Persecution, conflict and poverty have forced an unprecedented one million people to flee to Europe in 2015”. Over 800,000 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan Iraq and Iran crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey into Greece. Many attempted to travel through the Balkans with the hopes of gaining asylum in Western Europe. However, countries along the Balkan route closed their borders and/or tightened up security measures resulting in 50,000 refugees trapped in Greece.
Non profit, NetHope, has been installing Wi-Fi hotspots in refugee camps across Greece to aid those who have been trapped. In order to access vital information and loved ones, internet is as important as food and water. In December 2016, I volunteered with NetHope as storyteller, to document the work being done by engineers as well as interview refugees to learn more about how they utilize the internet. These drawings were created during a technical deployment.
Team J installing an access point on top of container homes, north end of Koutsochero camp, Larisa Greece.
In each camp, I started interviewing refugees and after a few sessions, I needed time to process their stories of fleeing war and persecution. To decompress, I'd sketch on location which would soon attract a crowd. Many would invite me into their tents or containers for tea and share their rations with me. This would then result in getting to know them on a more personal level.
In Eleonas camp, I found a spot to sit on the ground and draw. Syrian Kurdish refugees [pictured left] offered me tea.
The first camp we wired up in Thessaloniki (Northern Greece) I merely took out my sketchbook when a young Syrian man came over and said “My friend, draw me!” He invited me into his tent where I was introduced to his mother and younger brother. They huddled around a fire of burning scraps of wood. The winter air blew through a gaping hole in their dilapidated tent. After sharing Arabic coffee I drew his portrait to thank him for his hospitality. I was able to catch a glimpse into their harsh living conditions and felt saddened that I couldn’t do more to change their situation.
Syrian refugee boys play on a bike while others line up to receive daily rations off the back of a truck. Koutsochero camp, Larisa, Greece.
Often I’d be surrounded by curious children. I brought some crayons to share and encouraged them to draw in my sketchbook. One young Iraqi Yazidi boy drew a home and topped it off with a Wi-Fi access point. Of all the things he could draw, he chose a hotspot.
“Refugees often saw us working hard and out of hospitality, shared their rations with us.”
Refugees gather to receive daily rations at Lepida camp, Leros, Greece. Wiring up camps required long days with little time for lunch breaks. Refugees often saw us working hard and out of hospitality, shared their rations with us.
Moments I shared with the men, women and children I met were extremely special and I’m thankful for their hospitality. Drawing became not only a medium to create but also a way to connect. It is innate in every human being to want our voice and story to be heard.
Iraqi men spend time socializing outside one of their container homes. Iraqi Yazidi children play on cardboard [foreground]. Swings were made out of rope and old pillows tied to razor wire lined poles.
It will take decades for the dust to settle and lives to be rebuilt. Whether through time, skills, or monetary gifts, please consider supporting NGOs working on the ground: NetHope, International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, Doctors Without Borders and Medair. Those displaced by the conflict need our help more than ever.