I don’t know about you, but for me, the global refugee crisis has certainly captured my attention. Up until about five years ago, the word ‘refugee’ wasn’t really part of my vocabulary. But nowadays, not a day goes by where I don’t talk about, meet with or photograph refugees all over this planet.
For most of us the word refugee refers to a collective group of people. Them. Others. Far away. A mass. They pop up on our TV screens and on our phones. At first it was in boats heading into Europe, then it was fleeing for their lives out of Syria and right now another whopping group are escaping both famine and war in South Sudan.
But they are us. We are them. This heaving mess of humanity is ours. And behind the veils, behind the boats, behind the warzones are Mums just like me, with kids just like mine. Because there’s really no difference in what we want for our children, only in what we can give them. Over the years I’ve sat with many refugees as they’ve shared their stories of surviving war, humiliating rape, torture, slavery, abuse and the murder of loved ones. The pain they describe is unfathomable and horrific. Before I started doing humanitarian photography/storytelling, my honest mental temptation was to imagine that people who endured such things ‘on the news’ are somehow fundamentally different to me. Maybe, somehow, they just don’t feel things like I do. They’re “used to it”. Maybe they expect less, care less, hope for less, want less or need less. But painfully, over time, I have seen that they are exactly like me. And what they endured on a mattress or what they endured as they fled for their lives up a mountain is in no way easier for them because they are poor. So let me take you to the front lines of the global refugee crisis from Syria to South Sudan. I’ve got some people I’d love you to meet.
Parts of Congo have been at war for over 20 years and it’s estimated that over 5 million have lost their lives in the last 20 years. Worst of all is the gratuitous violence and prolific levels of rape but I’ll let Rosemary tell you about that.
“My name is Rosemary* and I came from a family of seven from Congo. When I was five I watched the rebels force themselves into my home, rape my Mother and then kill my father. My sister also died that night but my two brothers escaped. The rebels said they would take me into the bush and raise me to be their wife. I didn’t know where I was in the bush and I had nightmares about my family. I got my period at 11 years old. That night one of the men raped me and the rape continued from that time onwards. Sometimes all five of them would rape me one after the other. Once I refused and they said to me “We killed your parents, let us show you what we are going to do with you.” They brought paraffin and put petrol on my leg. Then they lit my leg on fire. The burns I have are still a painful reminder today. One day when I was 15 I stole $USD 1000 from their loot and I escaped while they were off fighting. I finally came to a road, and begged a truck driver to take me back to my home but there were strangers now living there. I was worried the rebels would come looking for me so I moved to another part of Congo and got a job as a house-helper. Then war came back to Congo and I fled to a Kenyan refugee camp. There I met a man who accepted me and loved me despite my HIV status. We had a baby boy together and then a baby girl before he was resettled to America. One day I thought I saw one of the rebels again and so I fled to Uganda. Here I now live and work as a UNHCR interpreter. Once, I was interpreting for a mental health patient and the things she was saying brought back many memories for me. They referred her (to Tearfund) and I decided to visit their office too. I met one of their staff and over time we’ve had many sessions. I used to hate men, even my own son. I would beat him only for the reason that he was a boy. Since that time I have changed totally. I’ve started to move on. They told me that I was going too by far by taking out my anger on my son. They prayed for me. They showed me that I was brave – that I survived, I ran away. That I have a hope for the future and two children. I have accepted my past and my history. It is about destiny. I have decided to change. Even though it’s a painful memory and I feel ashamed to talk about it, by the grace of God I have decided to move on. I thank them (Tearfund) for that.”
The youngest nation on earth is facing some major challenges. For starters, there’s a war going on. Oh, and famine. Right now there’s 800,000 South Sudanese living in refugee camps in Northern Uganda alone. But behind these whopping numbers are faces. Meet Ayenyo.
“My name is Ayenyo and I am 35 years old. I have seven children aged 3-10 years old. When the war broke out we had to leave very quickly. We saw many dead bodies as we fled, we also saw many people screaming as they were in the process of dying. In conjunction with that, my husband disappeared as we made our way here. My brother also is missing. We don’t know where they are or if they are dead or alive. And my brother in law was shot dead. By the time we reached Uganda the suffering was too much and we passed through a lot of stress but in the camp we arrived to more issues. After we arrived my mind was really off. I started talking to myself and my senses were running away from me. I had seen so many dead bodies but had to keep going in order to save myself and my own children. I had nightmares where I remembered all of that happening. My children also had bad dreams and weren’t sleeping. Luckily enough, they (Tearfund) came and taught us the skills of how to manage our stress. After the program I really felt relieved and a little bit of hope for the future. I also put the skills the program taught us into action and it is helping me a lot. The most touching lesson was one on forgiveness and I taught that to my children. I am recovering my senses and am able to come and speak with people. If Tearfund was not here – I would have shortened my life. But this program is prolonging my life. My request is that they do not leave us alone. We still have a lot of trauma and we want to continue receiving the services. That will help us in this life situation we are in."
Burundi is an East African country that’s suffered for many years from political instability and episodes of ethnic violence. Many Burundians, fearful for their safety have fled to neighbouring countries as refugees. Burundians like Janet.
“My name is Janet and I am 56 years old. In 1993 I was married with seven children and living in Burundi. One day the rebels came and killed my first born and my parents in front of me. Then in January 2008 the rebels came to my house and called my husband outside. They killed him and our two children that followed him outside. Then they burnt our house down. The only children who survived were the ones that were at school during the fire. I went to get them from school but one of the four was never seen again. In July 2008 I came to Nakivale Refugee Settlement with only the cloth I was wearing. Here in the settlement I had a miserable life. I had high blood pressure from extreme stress. It took two years for my stress levels to come down. Because I had no husband or source of income, my children were never able to return to school. They were forced to drop out. That was really hard for me. Two daughters went on to marry and I now have three grandchildren. The thing that traumatises me the most is when I see fire….it reminds me of that day. I wanted to run, be mad and not talk to anyone. My faith is very important to me. God gives me deep joy. If I did not have joy I would have died a long time ago as I’ve passed through thin and thick challenges. Through (Tearfund’s) program I’ve learnt a lot. When you sit with others and share your trauma, it loses its grip. It gets released. I found the topic of trust helpful. I am not the only one with problems, they are for everyone. You don’t need to focus on the problems, you focus on the future.”
Iraq is currently hosting over 1 million internally displaced people and refugees. But when you meet the one I did, it stays with you.
“My name is Shamme. I am 27 and I have three daughters aged 6, 8 and 11. I remember the day Isis came to Sinjar. I saw many people die that day. They separated my daughters and I from my husband. They took us to Syria and told us we have no God and no humanity. An Isis man came and took me by the hair and forced me to marry him. If I refused to sleep with him he would threaten to rape my daughters instead. Each night he would come home with bloody clothes from fighting and I would have to hand wash them. Then one day he told me he was going to be blowing himself up and so was selling me to another man. This next man was so bad to us. He would tie our hands behind our backs and only allow us out for prayer time. Once we tried to escape and he found out and put electricity on us all and gave us electric shocks to punish us. I saw women being stoned to death and many people with no heads lying on the ground. I struggled to sleep and felt like I was going crazy when this would happen. Later my children were put in Islam classes and taught to cut off Barbies heads, then chicken heads and then at 10 years old, human heads. I saw a ten year old girl given drugs and then gang raped by five men. When we ‘converted’ to Islam I was given a suicide vest and my daughter was given a grenade. One day we managed to escape through a smuggler. We walked for three days to get to safety. When we arrived I was so happy but realised most of my relatives had been killed or were still in captivity. When I went to the (Tearfund’s) program it made me feel better because we talked about how God can give you a hope and a future. Like many of my friends, I was also thinking about killing myself - but that would not solve the problem. If God is willing, we will be healed. We will not be under someone’s control. Our people will come back from captivity and Sinjar will be back as it was before.”
The greatest humanitarian crisis since WW2 is played out nightly on our evening news. The numbers are impossible to fathom. The crisis is complex. But it was Roula, whose baby was shot by a sniper that brought it to life for me.
“Before the war in Syria my situation was very stable. I was married, living on 10kms of land and we had five big trucks. But I used to dream about getting pregnant. After six years, I finally got a baby. My next dream was to own a house. We worked hard for that and fixed everything in it. My first and second babies were girls and then I got a baby boy. After he was born I felt completely satisfied with my life. I felt like everything I ever wanted was fulfilled. When I looked at him I felt like I owned the whole world. Then the war came. One day we had to flee. I was 8 months pregnant at the time. As we were running we became visible to terrorists and snipers started shooting at me. I was holding my son across my chest and my daughters by the hands. The bullet went through his shoulder to his heart. There is nothing I could ever say to explain this moment. If I live or die, I will never be able to explain it. My Father came to get us and rushed us to the hospital but by the time we go there my son was dead. Then, my Father went back to our home and we’ve never heard from him again. He is probably dead too. I later heard that ISIS took our land. They stole everything, burnt it and have also taken our trucks and tractors. They also made a notice on the outside of our property saying this land belongs to ISIS. After they stole everything they bombed our house. There is only rubble left. Even the pickles I had made for the winter, all of it is gone. When I came to Lebanon I felt very lost in this new country. Soon after, they (Tearfund) came around our family and gave me hope. It is really difficult to live here because I used to have my own house and could raise my own kids. Now I just wish for my own tent. We are living with relatives and friends and I find it hard to raise the kids with all those other people. From the time the war started and up until now I have been suffering a lot but they (Tearfund) have made things easier. They’ve provided for our basic needs and even some small things my girls have needed like dresses or toys. They provided me with fuel for the winter and food when we need it. They’ve also helped get my girls back in school."
Helen Manson is a humanitarian photographer for Tearfund New Zealand. Tearfund is coming alongside all of the refugees pictured by providing everything from emergency aid to long term trauma counselling services and everything in between. For more information head to Tearfund.org.nz