Humans of New York: Migrant Crisis

by Joseph McKeown

As the U.N. General Assembly opens with a strong focus on Syria and the refugee crisis, and Europe and the United States continue to address the ever-growing number of refugees, it’s important to remember the human side of the story behind all the politics. And there are few better photographers for presenting the human side of any story than Humans of New York's Brandon Stanton

Humans of New York (HONY) was started by the Georgia native when after being fired from his job as a bond trader, he "thought it would be really cool to create an exhaustive catalogue of New York City’s inhabitants, so [he]…set out to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers and plot their photos on a map" but then his project "began to take on a much different character." Stanton started collecting quotes and short stories when he was taking the photographs, and after a lot of hard work and time spent on NYC city streets (he says that he'll "pass 1,000 people before I take a photograph"), his blog took off.

Millions of Different Hardships

With over fifteen million likes on Facebook and a New York Times bestselling book, HONY is one of the most popular street photography sites today. And now Stanton is bringing his unique focus to the refugee crisis gripping the Middle East, North Arica, and Europe. Noting that these migrants “are part of one of the largest population movements in modern history,” Stanton will be documenting their stories and the “millions of different hardships that refugees face as they search for a new home.”

The first story he shares is of Muhammad, who he first met last year in Iraqi Kurdistan. At the time, Muhammad had just fled the war in Syria and was working as a clerk in a hotel when he agreed to work as Stanton’s interpreter. Afterwards Muhammad had planned to travel to the United Kingdom with fake papers, but his plans did not work out. After one family tragedy after another, he makes a harrowing journey and finally ends up in Austria.

Muhammad says:    

The first day I was there, I walked into a bakery and met a man named Fritz Hummel. He told me that forty years ago he had visited Syria and he’d been treated well. So he gave me clothes, food, everything. He became like a father to me. He took me to the Rotary Club and introduced me to the entire group. He told them my story and asked: ‘How can we help him?’ I found a church, and they gave me a place to live. Right away I committed myself to learning the language. I practiced German for 17 hours a day. I read children’s stories all day long. I watched television. I tried to meet as many Austrians as possible. After seven months, it was time to meet with a judge to determine my status. I could speak so well at this point, that I asked the judge if we could conduct the interview in German. He couldn’t believe it. He was so impressed that I’d already learned German, that he interviewed me for only ten minutes. Then he pointed at my Syrian ID card and said: ‘Muhammad, you will never need this again. You are now an Austrian!’

New stories are being added every day.

Where the Children Sleep

Along with HONY, Swedish photographer Magnus Wennman is also currently documenting the refugee crisis with a strong focus on the individual stories of the people involved. In “Where the Children Sleep,” Wennman focuses on the migrant children sleeping on streets and in forests. He notes that “two million children are fleeing the war, within and outside of the country borders. They have left their friends, their homes, and their beds behind. A few of these children offered to show where they sleep now, when everything that once was no longer exists.”